Recent word that the “N” word has been outlawed in New York City brought to mind an incident from several years ago that involved that despicable word. I knew it was inevitable that despite our family’s lack of prejudice and our teaching of tolerance my children would one day hear the infamous “N” word spoken aloud. I did not expect, however, that they would hear it during church, during the Eucharistic celebration of our Catholic faith. Nor did I think that they would first hear it from the lips of the church’s pastor and our parish priest during his weekly homily.
If I had hazarded a guess, I might have thought the word would first been spoken within their ken by a careless classmate, a color conscious adult in a public place or heard on television. To sit beside my husband, daughters and young son listening to the man serving as our spiritual leader talk about “poor white trash” and “black niggers” during Mass was unexpected as well as inexcusable.
Because the good Father fancies himself to be of a literary bent, the words in question – or would that be questionable words? – came from an excerpt of Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Redemption”.
Although the priest has since been removed to seek long term mental health care, I realize that he was not of sound mind and I do not hold a grudge. I do however disapprove of the example used to drive that point home and most vehemently to the inclusion of such terms.
In these infant years of the 21st century I would like to believe that we as a nation are past the offensive terms of the past, that we have advanced from using derogatory terms and racial slurs but I don’t. I am well aware that prejudice is alive and well in America. After a childhood spent in an urban setting, I have heard the terms. I have heard all the names – including the “N” word. I am past embarrassment but I have not outgrown outrage.
The words that the priest read aloud to a congregation of families in a small Missouri town were out of place. Those words were despicable and insulting, not only to people of color but to all humankind. He insulted not only our sensibilities but also our intelligence.
The words used in a story written a half century ago are dated and no longer acceptable. To use a now well worn catch phrase, such terms are no longer politically correct. They have no place in our society but most of all; they have no right to be spoken on an altar dedicated to a god who is God of all.
Silence filled the small church after the priest concluded his homily with the quip; “It just doesn’t get any better than that.” I hope and I pray that he meant fictional Mrs. Turpin’s revelation that those she considered beneath her in life would become her equal if not her betters in heaven.
I also hope that Father realizes he created endless questions in the innocent minds of my children who asked over Sunday dinner why he said those words, why he called human beings by those insulting terms.
“Did he mean us?” One of my daughters asked, soft brown eyes tilting upward at me without guile.
Which did my daughter wonder that we might be, I pondered? Any message hidden within the homily and expressed through the words of a long dead writer vanished in the shock value of the “N” word. Preceded by the word “black”, the term left no doubt as to what people were thus described.
I am not black but in my American family tree there are branches of more than one color, more than one faith, more than one background. As a tail end member of the Baby Boom generation, I was raised colorblind. My grandmother’s best friend in the years before Civil Rights became an issue was black. I called them both Granny. My friends and those of my parents were of many races, many shades, and many nationalities. I did not see Jews or blacks or Hispanics. Instead, I saw Milton and Ann; my best friend Mary and her sister Candy, Faustino and Julio.
I was a teenager before I fully understood that not everyone had friends of various colors and ethnic backgrounds. After moving from the old city neighborhood of my birth to a small town, I also learned that some people looked down on Catholics. I found out that there were names as unkind, as harsh as the “N” word for people of my faith.
I taught my children that all of us are people no matter what our appearance may be. To do so, I did not need to speak the “N” word. I did not but yet their ears; their minds were defiled with ugliness in a holy place.
That makes me ashamed for such is not part of the faith that my father, no priest, taught me. If I have anything to thank God for, it is only that the priest who spoke that word has been removed from our parish and our lives. I can but hope that the word will never issue from his mouth again. I can hope.