A little over a week ago, a video of a University of Oklahoma fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, singing a racist chant was leaked to the world. You can see an uncensored clip of the incident here in case you missed it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dG-wq6SJqjU. As an OU alumnus I was horrified that something like that happened in 2015, yet sadly, I was not surprised. Most of the students I encountered at the university were not racist at all. But there were some on campus and as I remember, there was a particular fraternity that was known for trucks, boots, and the Southern stars and bars printed on a few T-shirts. Frats pick and choose their members and develop very strong and distinct personalities that differentiate one house from the other. A combination of tight finances and my own weird ethical code at the time (no booze, no dating, just learning) led me to decline a few offers to join a couple fraternities. In the end, I became a resident advisor (RA) which paid for room and board, and also made me a disciplinarian for freshmen boys (men was not appropriate for many of them) living in the dorms, many who were fraternity pledges.
I’ll come back to my time as an RA and a very ugly racist incident I encountered at OU, but first I want to write about my own use of the N-word in stories and an early experience that I had with the word that shaped my experience. I will have at least 18 short stories published by the end of this year along with 2 novellas. Several of the stories use the N-word. My story “Maybelle’s Last Stand” will be in next month’s Shotgun Honey Presents: Locked & Loaded anthology and it features extreme southern racism with the use of the N-word and a harsh ending born of maternal love. I believe I use the N-word based on a few situations I had growing up, witnessing the devastating effect of two syllables.
Hearing the N-word as a child
The first time remembering hearing the N-word took place in Tennessee in the early eighties. It was a family reunion on my mother’s mother’s side. I remember hundreds of people gathered in a community center or country club. Several people asked me who I was and when I said Travis Richardson their faces went blank face. I had to explain my mother and then grandmother’s maiden name before they finally were able to connect me to a branch on the family tree. I ended up hanging out with older kids in a trophy room that had a television in it. They were mostly boys who knew each other well. I was by far the youngest and the only kid from Oklahoma, but they were cool with me. We watched a program on the history of baseball that ended with the catchy song “Talkin’ Baseball.” In between black and white footage of past greats were commercials and at one point a 7UP commercial came on the air that featured Geoffrey Holder using a thick Caribbean accent to sell his “uncola cola.” To me, Mr. Holder was the hero who saved the little redhead orphan girl in the musical “Annie.”
To my young relatives in the trophy room he was a nigger. They shouted that word over and over again during the commercial with unified hate and camaraderie. They also made cracks about watermelons, big lips, and fried chicken. My mind could not comprehend what was happening. I liked the guy on TV. He had risked his life to save Annie by hanging from a helicopter from his unwrapped turban. He was a good guy. So why was he being attacked with so much anger by people who obviously didn’t know him? And how did they know what he ate? (I only knew he drank 7UP.) It was the first time I had heard or at least recognized the N-word and I did not like it.
Hearing the N-word as a young adult
After that time, I encountered the word more and came to understand the history and uses of the word. (I remember once my grandfather lectured a couple of deer hunters about not using the N-word in a conversation in the woods. My dad and I just wanted to get far away from hateful men with rifles.) But I had another fateful incident that changed the way I look at the word. As a sophomore at OU, I was an RA in the Adams Hall dormitory. All freshmen are required to live in the dorms at OU. RAs had to do rounds, which meant walking up 12 flights of stairs (I preferred going up over down) in four towers and crossing the hallways to look for any signs of trouble. I didn’t get off on the power, so my citation pad was less used than others. If students were respectful, honest, and admitted mistakes, I often let them off with a verbal warning. One night I was doing midnight rounds with another RA. The other RA was great. (I’m not naming his names or others in this story.) He was a laid back, nice guy that everybody liked. Oh, and one other detail, he was black.
That last bit of detail didn’t make any difference to me or anybody I knew. He was just a cool guy. Period. On that fateful night as I walked up the stairs and rounded the corner to the elevator lobby, I froze, seeing something that my brain could not process. A female student was fellating a male student in a very open and public space. (No links here, you’re on your own to look that up.) And here is the kicker, I knew both of the students. They were both freshmen who went to my high school. While I stood, shocked still, my RA partner came up from behind me. I remember the girl had turned away, embarrassed. The guy who was on the receiving end of the couple’s transaction was trashed, his eyes were glassy and he was trying to pull up his pants. But when he saw my partner, he dropped the pants and his eyes changed from drunken humiliation to rage. (I remember this moment well.) He started shouting “Nigger, you nigger!” over and over again in a voice that was deep (deeper than his normal voice) and full of malevolence. My partner ran down the stairs. I stood there for maybe a moment, but then joined my fellow RA. I remember hearing that a-hole shouting the N-word as I bounded down the stairs trying to catch up to my partner.
I hate how shaken and traumatized my partner was from just a single, stupid word. (I was too, but not on the same level.) Words have power. In theory we both could have taken down this drunken a-hole. He was barely standing drunk with his privates on display, vulnerability in the extreme. That didn’t matter. The racist jackass had utilized a weapon. A weapon of evil. The student was kicked out (and yes he was in a frat), but I believe he was reinstated the following year after taking sensitivity training. Perhaps he changed his racist ways. If so, good for him. If not, then I hope he got neutered in some humiliating accident so he won’t breed his own degenerate kind. I do know that the RA who was racially targeted continued with his job for the rest of the year, but then left the resident advising business the following year in the middle of the semester. Did the events on that fateful day have something to do with it? Maybe, maybe not. All I know is that he was a 20 year old man who was incredibly nice and sensitive and he was verbally assaulted based on the color of the skin by somebody who was clearly in violation of both the law and decency. Some wounds don’t heal easy even if we wear a smile and say everything is okay.
N-word today on my campus
So this brings me back to the OU SAE video. When it first aired in the evening on March 8, I watched a couple of news reports and went to bed unhappy, but glad that OU’s president Boren was taking decisive action as he had done with a tepee urination incident back when he first took office. I didn’t immerse myself in the controversy, only reading a little of Boren’s statements to kick the fraternity off campus and some organized rallies on campus. Both actions which I support as an alumnus (who donates annually).
I didn’t react much on Facebook or other places because I seem to have a genetic disposition to mull things over instead of instantaneously responding (which is bad for a Twitter account) and I try not to jump on outrage bandwagons. (I also had a crime writers conference to prepare for and bunch of work to get done before I hit the road.) A high school and college friend on Facebook mused about the overreaction to the scandal and several of my high school alumni joined in with similar sentiments. The comments ranged from (excuse the paraphrasing) people are so easily offended these days, to thank God nobody recorded me in college and why is the university coming down so hard on guys who didn’t hurt anybody and the similar violent things are happening in the world and this makes news?!?. There were only two voices of very kind dissent in the post, one from a childhood friend who has biracial children. I was disappointed. I thought there would be universal condemnation of SAE to have them associated with OU, the fraternal/Panhellenic system, and Oklahoma as a whole. This distressed me as much if not more than the original incident. Why was everybody so defensive? They weren’t on the bus chanting the ignorant song.
I mentioned those comments to an OU alumna currently at UCLA and she sees it as white people/Oklahomans (and she is a white Okie) twisting incidents to be all about them. I hate false victimization. It pollutes dialogue and discussion of ideas. I have a theory that white victimization started in the late eighties with damaging political correctness superiority and then shifted into high gear with the unrelenting neoconservative movement that still makes it impossible for me to have a conversation of any depth with my father (this phenomenon is happening with other sons too). Sigh. That is a blog for another time.
So getting back to writing since this is a writing blog. I think the two incidents mentioned above and probably a few others, have led me to put the N-word in the mouths of characters I either despise or at least wanted to paint as ignorant. It appears in both my novellas and a few short stories. In a couple of cases I changed the N-word for a less-offensive one on some rewrites. I recently accepted an offer to write a short story for an anthology called Forty-Four Caliber Funk to be edited by Gary Phillips. I have to come up with a story set in the turbulent inner-cities of the 60s and 70s. I love the challenge, but it has me wondering if I will use the N-word or not, and if so in what context. I’m maturing every day as a writer and person, and I hope you do as well.
Thank you for your time!
Travis Richardson is fortunate to have been nominated for both the Anthony and Macavity short story awards for “Incident on the 405,” featured in MALFEASANCE OCCASIONAL: GIRL TROUBLE. His novella LOST IN CLOVER was listed in Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Crime Fiction of 2012. He has published stories in several online zines and anthologies. He edits the Sisters-In-Crime LA newsletter, reviews Chekhov shorts atwww.chekhovshorts.com and sometimes shoots a short movie. His latest novella is KEEPING THE RECORD. Find out more at: www.tsrichardson.com