I was about 12 years old and I was leaving my best friends’ house riding my bicycle. I was riding on a street with no sidewalks, and where we lived no sidewalks was the norm. As I rode enjoying the sun and my thoughts I heard a car coming up behind me so I moved over. I moved as far as I could and when they passed me I heard them say “Get out the road n-----!” I had gone as far as I could go over and I couldn’t quite understand what they said. He was leaning out of the window and his face was angry. I kept riding my bike.
When I got home it was dinner time. My brothers, sister and I and our parents were sitting down to dinner together as we always did. Undoubtedly my brothers would start picking at each other and get in trouble by my mom. My sister would be reading a book and I would be sitting there eating and listening to my parents as they talked. Our dog Saint would be sitting at my dad’s feet.
As we were eating, I remembered what had happened to me earlier in the day and I asked my dad what’s a n-----? My parents immediately stopped eating. I could see the pain in my dads’ face and he asked me where did I hear that? I told him and his eyes filled with tears. I couldn’t understand his reaction at that time; however to this day, I have never forgotten that moment.
My dad told us all the story of that word and what it means and why it is used. We were a military family and my brothers and I had never lived anywhere but Navy bases in Virginia, Texas and Puerto Rico. When I was in the seventh grade our family moved to Mississippi because my dad was being sent to Washington, D.C. for a short stint and he felt that he wanted us to be around all of our relatives until he got back. He had hoped to be able to shield us from ever having to endure what he and my mom and grandparents had had to endure and yet he could not. In retrospect, I wonder how he thought that Mississippi was the place to put a family that didn’t even know what the n-word was. But that is for another day.
My 12-year-old self had never heard that word spoken until that day. I have never forgotten the way it made my dad feel. It only upset me once I knew what the word meant. I use it here to make the point that it can be upsetting. I can only speak to the experiences that I have had and you speak to yours. Each experience is imprinted into our soul memory and can remain forever. The way that we internalize and then react to words is as different as the stars in the sky. Reactions to words can be emotional and can be cemented within us. These reactions can manifest once there is an education process that explains the words.
Words are so powerful and can illuminate and terminate. Our children hear our words and feel our pain. Instead of creating an environment for young children to thrive we are slowly stripping away the tenets of play and childhood. Children who thrive best in an environment of engagement, are made to sit for hours looking at a screen listening to the words of the teacher alone. The words of those in power have changed each one of our children’s reality and WE are responsible. Our words to each other are becoming less kind and more hurtful. All of us are responsible and all of us should make an attempt to change the narrative for our children. Let’s attempt to stop calling each other names and think before we speak. Not all of us look the same nor grow up in the same way; however we each know the feeling of unconditional love for our children and how we so much want to protect them from all harm.
Let’s give them a chance to learn and to change and to be better than we are. Let’s open our mouths and speak life and possibility and know that what we leave them is all they have. Are we gonna tear it up or are we gonna repair it? Our words matter.
Yolande Barial is a Tracy resident and mother. Her column appears monthly in the Tracy Press. Comments can be sent to email@example.com.