When Randy used the word as though
it were a word that anyone might use,
I don’t know what I thought. I flared his cape
with my forearms and shifted in his chair.
I know I didn’t think of Tony’s hair,
a hi-top fade that Randy would have no
idea how to fix. I know I said
nothing, by which I must have meant Continue
filling my ears with trimmings. Dust my nape
with talcum. Offer me impartial views
of both sides of the back of my head.
And outside, let the barber’s pole continue
its reenactment. Let the silver ball recall
the bowl of leeches. Let the helical
progress-illusion of the stripes remain
the blood, the twining bandage, and the vein.
America, and I’m about to talk
directly to the Eric in you,
you had to pay for that one, but
the man you say you mean to be will walk
out of some barbershops with his hair half-cut.
Poet’s Notes: This happened to me when I was 14 or 15: I was getting a haircut, and the barber casually used a racial slur, and I didn’t say anything. A moral test that I failed. I started reading about barber poles while I was writing the poem and was amazed to learn what their colors allegedly symbolize.
Editor’s Note: I had a similar experience in my mid-teens in the barbershop of the small town where I was raised. My barber didn’t say “nigger”, but his offhand comment was racist enough. I remember feeling infuriated and insulted that he assumed that I would agree with his opinion and wondered if there was anything about me (other than being white and from the same town) that led him to believe that I would go along with him.
I thought about leaving immediately and without paying and with my hair half cut but reconsidered quickly as I realized that my barber and the other shop barber who happened to be his identical twin brother, as well as probably all of the men sitting in the shop waiting for their turns, would take issue--and the brothers at least were armed with razors, and one of those razors was literally at my throat. I wisely chose to ignore the comment, finish my haircut, and leave without tipping never to return. It took me a long time to find another barber, but fortunately, it was the early 80s, and long hair was in style.
Was my response a “moral failing” as Eric believes his was? I don’t think so. I lived to fight/write another day. Also, in the words of a wise rabbi, “One is meant to live by the Commandments, not to die by them.”
Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to comment on “the word”. Used in the context of quoting someone else, in historical context (ie: Mark Twain’s works), or in a philosophical discussion or essay such as this one, it is (or should be) perfectly polite and right to use the word “nigger”. Substituting “the N-word” or “the word” as Eric does gives the word “nigger” evil power in the same way that using “you-know-who” instead of “Voldemort” or “Tom Riddle” gave evil power to J. K. Rowling’s dark wizard. “Randy Used the Word” was first published in Able Muse.
Artist’s Note: For this piece, I decided to focus on the aspect of keeping silent. On the outside people often need to hide their unique thoughts and feelings and put on a veil to fit in with the crowd, sometimes for their own safety.
During my experience in college, if I ever made a comment that went against the general consensus I was met with hostility and threats. This was from both my peers and professors. I eventually learned to keep my mouth shut. Sadly, I had to accept that my college was not an open environment to discuss ideas freely.