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Silence When a Neighbor Uses the “N” Word and a Living Room Epiphany – By Carmelene Melanie Siani

One day back in the 60’s when life as we knew it was changing through the civil rights movement, my husband called me from work.

“You need to turn on the television. You won’t believe what’s happening in the South.”

So inundated were my days with washing diapers, sterilizing bottles, emptying potties and making sure the mashed potatoes didn’t have lumps in them I hadn’t had time to notice that there was a whole wide world beyond my neat little tract house that was heaving with problems.

My children were napping. I turned the sound on the TV down completely so as not to wake them and stood in the living room staring at the black and white images on the screen — a swarming mass of people, dogs, police, violence, anger, and blood—all being telecast live.

Scenes such as this had not been seen live on television before. It was horrifying. It was the world gone mad.

I knew nothing of civil rights, constitutional rights, human rights or politics but I didn’t need to know these things. When the camera cut to a picture of the figures marching across that bridge in Alabama they marched right out of my television into my living room, carrying with them all I needed to know.

I was forever changed by that moment. I hadn’t sung any peace songs. Hadn’t gone to any rallies. There was no marching on my part, no activism, no nothing. There was just an epiphany in my living room.

~

“I felt knowledge and the unity of the world circulate in me like my own blood.” ~ Hermann Hesse.

~

I suddenly became aware of wrongs all around me. How come all the low paying jobs were filled by Mexicans? How come all the black and Chinese kids went to a certain school? How come my neighborhood was all white? How come?

It was pretty simple stuff but I was burning with the truth of it; committed to imparting it to my children as they grew. In that small way, I thought, perhaps the only way available to me in those constrained times, could I help to bring about a change in the world at large.

One night a neighbor couple was at our house for dinner. Conversation was going on in its usual way when the wife, referring to the riots on the news, used a racial slur.

“Please don’t use the “N” word in my house,”

My knees shook. I was aligning myself. I was making a statement. It felt like one of the most daring things I had ever done. I had no like-minded people whose organization I had joined to back me up. No ideology. Not even a book I had read on the subject. All I had was what I had seen on the television and what I felt inside. Speaking such a personal truth in a life that consisted of white thought, white supremacy and all white neighborhoods filled with women who didn’t step outside the lines of what was expected of them, bordered on the revolutionary.

It didn’t matter to me.

“Please don’t use the “N” word. Not in my house and not in front of my children.”

The woman got up from the sofa, walked into the bedroom to get her coat and without a word, left the house, her husband following her. In all the time it took for her to do that there was total silence.

I sat there thinking about it. About the silence and about how silence was the reason the woman had been able to say what she had said in the first place.

I wasn’t going to be silent any longer.

I couldn’t. I was marching across a bridge in Alabama.


Originally published in a different form in ElephantJournal.com



Author Bio: Carmelene Melanie Siani

Carmelene Melanie Siani

Carmelene writes stories from every day life and how life itself offers lessons to help us grow, expand, and put our feet on higher ground.

https://www.facebook.co/StoryBelly/



 

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16 comments

  1. Wow…you captured this moment in time perfectly. I too was struck to the core when the riots began and the world as I knew it began to crumble. I remember thinking that my former complacency was a dream I needed to wake from; although I never attended a sit-in, love-in, march or anything else, my mind was changed forever. From that point on, there was and is no going back. Once you know that something is wrong, there is no way to make it right again in your mind.

    Thank you for this.

    Jane

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You said it perfectly Jane. Once you know something is wrong, there is no going back. (You and I must be from about the same era…) Thanks so much for commenting.

      Like

    1. I happen to know that the other woman was not changed. I became the “bad guy” who “can you believe it? treated her that way!” Years later, I mean about 30 years later, when I was working at the University of South Florida (in 1989) the Dean of Pharmacy’s secretary used the N word in her office right outside the dean’s door — I was so shocked I almost did not say anything — but I gathered my wits about me and said something politic-like “I haven’t heard the N word used in conversation in years,” or something to that effect — to which she responded, “Well, you ain’t from around here. Get used to it.” (I remember what she said more than I remember what I said.) This was in an institute of higher learning! Really?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautifully said. You speak for so many of us of a certain age, how we were awakened by what we saw on that new piece of furniture in our homes that had a screen through which the injustices in the world were now visible.

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    1. Yes! Exactly Melphine! Interesting how such a “piece of furniture” that does nothing but put me to sleep (both mentally and physically) these days — served to wake us up in those early days. So well said. Thank you for commenting! xoxoxo

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Brings tears to my eyes as I read your words. I too, back then, knew nothing of the injustices, wrongs happening.
    Today, because of the bravery of those to cross a bridge, standing tall for what they believed, what was their right and those who documented it, we have no excuse to let it exist, hide beneath ignorance or naivety. No more, no more.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Its not easy to stand up especially when its your family. Even though I know I can’t change the person, I can hopefully change the way they talk in my presence. My husband is Hispanic and my stepfather calls Hispanic people “Messcans”. I asked my husband if this offends him and he said, “No, that is the way he was raised.” He further told me that he knew that he and my stepfather have a good relationship and he knew it was not personal. I can see his point but it still unnerves me to hear my stepfather say the “N” word. He said it once in the presence of my grandson and I asked him not to use that word in the presence of my grandchildren. My grandson’s father is a African American.

    My grandfather warned me against African Americans when I was in elementary school and I argued with him. I have never understood where that came from. Until this moment, I believed that racism will not die until some generations die, generations who grew up using the “N” word. Most older people I know who use or have used the “N” word don’t mean anything bad by it, its just what they have always known. What I just realized is that racism cannot die with people who grew up using the word because those people have passed it on to their children and on and on. We can only hope that those of us who have been educated against racism, who resisted the attempts of our relatives to be racist, will keep on passing it down.

    I grew up around the “N” word and now I am shocked when I hear its use. Thank God for education!

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    1. Very interesting comment Patricia. I am especially taken by your thoughts on the generational transference of racism and your point is well taken by me. I am 74 years old so I was raised in those generations in which the N word was okay — and all that went with it was okay too — I do think however, especially since I’ve been writing for publications whose editors are in their 20’s-30’s that racism — at least black and white racism — will be a thing of the past for the generations behind me. I know I’m generalizing from my personal experience and I am aware that I deal with a segment of that age group — but still, it is very heartening to me. You yourself represent what I consider to be the family of the future — black, white, Hispanic, Asian — When I married my first husband his mother’s first comment was “Couldn’t you marry an American?” She came from an Irish family, I came from an Italian family. Today, those kinds of distinctions have virtually disappeared. Thank you for taking the time to make your comments. I appreciated learning of your experience.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was difficult for me to date a Hispanic because I am a believer that cultural differences are sometimes difficult to overcome. Now I am married to him and have found that while the cultural differences make life interesting, they are often troublesome. Point in fact, when it comes to family, my husband believes that what’s mine is yours. I believe that what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours and if you want what is mine, ask and I will consider giving it to you, to me that is setting boundaries. I have found one of my bath rugs missing only to find that my step-daughter took it because it matched her set, her dad laughed and told her to bring it back. I have looked in the freezer for food I planned to cook to find that one of the kids took it home with them. We have paid my step-children’s bills when we couldn’t pay our own. They see me as greedy and selfish. I love them all but it can be tiresome. I am not telling you this because it is not working, it is, I am telling you this because it may not be a black and white thing so much a cultural thing. I remember my boyfriend from high school’s father feeling the same way about me not being Italian. I was to learn the Italian ways. The American remark, I don’t understand. People fear what they don’t know and sometimes what they fear is real. My opinions are often unpopular but they are thought provoking. I could “jump on the bandwagon” but I need my own voice, popular or not, to continue to grow. Thanks for responding to my comment and not taking offense. It was an awesome post.

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        1. You are more than welcome Patricia. Absolutely no offense taken — never even occurred to me. Dialogue is how we grow and also how we learn to love. Thank for your comments on my post.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. great post! it’s often not the big or loud gestures, but these quiet affirming ones, the ones that stabilise your spine and heart which make a big and lasting difference. Standing for what we believe in and sticking to it, much harder than it seems. Well done you!

    Liked by 1 person

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