The following is a sermon given by the Reverend Dr. Jim Nelson of Neighborhood Church in Pasadena, California, shortly after the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords:
Randall Kennedy teaches law at Harvard Law School and is known for his insights into the law regarding race relations. In the introduction to his book ‘The N-Word, …’ Here an aside already. Kennedy uses the term, that derogatory racial slur, as the title of his book. I will not use it, for reasons I will get to a little later. The subtitle of his book is ‘The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.’ It is an excellent book, I thought. In the introduction he tells of coming home after being in a fight with a white kid in the playground of his elementary school in Washington DC, and asking his parents how he should react to being called the n-word by a white person.
His father said fight – with fists, rocks, bottles, whatever was at hand, but not to let it pass. His mother, on the other hand said, to ignore it, let it go, walk away, for, as Kennedy remembers her saying ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words need never harm you.’
Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words need never harm you. Ever heard that when you were little or ever said that to your own children? Kennedy asked his Mother about the word and she told him the story of when she was little, in a time before the Civil Rights Act was passed when she and her mother would take the bus to pick up laundry from white homes and return it that way. They always sat in the back of the bus, where Blacks sat. One day, though, her mother had to run an errand and Kennedy’s mother had to take the bus alone. She was seven or eight years old. She got on the bus, paid the fare, and scared at being alone, sat down right behind the driver. A block later, he pulled the bus to the curb, and yelled at her, calling her the n word and told her to get to the back of the bus where she belonged. She fled crying.
Slurs – there are tons of them. For African Americans, for Mexican Americans, for Jews, for women, for GLBT persons, for the Irish, for Italians, for the physically or cognitively handicapped, for Native Americans and on and on – slurs, words intended to be pejorative, words intended to label a class or group of people as something less than, something inferior, something wrong or bad. Words intended to wound. Words to label someone ‘other.’
Ever been called something bad; ever heard hurtful speech in your life? Sticks and stones do hurt, but words can wound and words can heal. Words can unite and words can divide. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all? Is that right?
I imagine many of you heard the speech President Obama gave in Tucson this past week. It was a remarkable talk, and like all great speeches, Obama asked us to be better than we are, to live up to our ideals, not down to our desires. It called to mind other great speeches, and this weekend certainly it calls to mind Martin Luther King Jr’s speech on the mall in Washington, his ‘I have a Dream’ speech in which he also called us to be better than we are. Words have power.
Let me tell you where this sermon originated. Its earliest roots begin at a basketball game in Minneapolis, with my Dad and my brother, at a Minneapolis Lakers game. This was just after the George Mikan era for the Lakers, and must have been in the late 1950s; I was 11 or so. In the stands that day was Elgin Baylor [the original Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James] who had just been signed. Also signed that year was Boo Ellis [he was 6’5’’ and 185 pounds!] He had been drafted third behind Baylor. And my Dad, at one point turned to my brother and me and whispered, “That’s Jigaboo Ellis.”
My Dad was a wonderful man; I had never heard him say anything harsh or cruel. I do not know what he thought of people different from us – there weren’t any different people in my upbringing. Where we lived in Minneapolis was all white, mostly Scandinavian. I remember thinking my best friend’s family was odd because they were Czech. I had no experience with people who were different from me. And I never heard my Dad say anything again like that after – but his tone, that he whispered the word, suggested it was not right – it wasn’t the n-word but it was close enough.
On the Sunday after Thanksgiving this year, Hannah gave a sermon, partly about feminism and liberation, and she mentioned the title of a song John Lennon had written with Yoko Ono with the title Woman is the – of the World’ – well, you may know the rest. Hannah then went on to say that the n-word was and is incendiary and referred not to the word itself, but used the euphemism ‘the n-word.’
A couple of people walked out; others were upset. The power of a word. Sticks and stones. Some defended Hannah’s use – after all, it was a quote and she acknowledged its negative power. Some thought using it was wrong; some thought it was right. Hannah and I have talked about this a lot. It was hard to hear for some, not for others. Sticks and stones.
So what is it with this word of all words? We talked about this in the Neighborhood People of Color group and our conversation was heartfelt, at times painful, and, for me, profound. There were differing opinions about what was right or not, whether the word could be said or not. It was then I realized that this was a word I will never use, and I want to try and explain why. It has to do with power and pain.
At one point in our discussion, someone asked what word would be the equivalent for a white male, and, of course, there is none. There are lots of insults, but nothing like racial or ethnic slurs for white males; lots of words that can be used against individuals, but no word attributed to the class. This is, of course, because slurs, like the n-word, have to do with power and privilege; they are a reminder of status, of being above and below. Just as the bus driver meant when he told Randall Kennedy’s mother where she should sit.
It is about power, power over. All slurs are meant to demean and to wound, to rob a person or a people of their humanity. Whether it is calling those on the left socialists or those on the right fascists, name-calling divides and wounds; it provokes rather than promotes.
We all know that words have power – if I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be here, nor do I imagine you would be where you are. Words inspire for weal or for woe. We celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr this weekend and it is partly because of the power of words that we do. Re-read the Letter from the Birmingham Jail or his I Have A Dream Speech – words that question and provoke and inspire. Obama’s speech Wednesday night; the ill-advised and violent speech of so many on radio and TV, the awful speech of this last election cycle, the violent speech we head all too often – they mean speech to have consequences.
Words have power. How to talk to each other, the words of endearment or shame or blame matter. This is not an argument about the freedom of speech, and the attempt to change it to that is deceptive. This is not about free speech but responsible and compassionate speech. I can say anything I please from this pulpit – the freedom of the pulpit is our heritage; it is written into my contract and is in our by-laws. But what should I say is what I struggle with each week, what are the right words so that you might hear, the words that welcome rather than reject.
The question is not whether we can say something but whether we should. It is a question of responsibility, not a question of rights.
In Notes from A Native Son James Baldwin writes this: [this is occasioned by the death of his father and a riot in Harlem]
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are; in the light of this it goes without saying that injustice is a commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea had equal power: that one must never, in ones own life accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and now it had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair.
I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.’
The great wound of our society is the legacy of slavery. It is historic fact that women have been second class citizens in this nation, that children have been treated as chattel, that Native Americans experienced what can only be called genocide, that Hispanic Americans have been treated as aliens, that gay and lesbian people considered as sick and evil, Japanese Americans were interred in concentration camps and Chinese Americans as slave laborers in the west. It is true that people like me – white and male have had most of the power and privilege in our society, and, to a large extent still do. But slavery was institutionalized oppression, men and women, children were bought and sold as things; they were considered less than fully human. And it serves, in a deep and profound way, as a metaphor for all of the inequities of our society, and of all of the oppression historic and current in our world.
So this is the question: what do you think? What do you think? Is order more important than justice, security more important than freedom? Should we feel free to say whatever we want? Should a word, even as powerful a word as the n-word have that power? Who can say it and who cannot? What about the current controversy over Huckleberry Finn? Before you decide what you think is right, listen – listen to those against whom this word is used as weapon.
In the movie ‘Rush Hour,’ with Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, there is a scene in which Tucker greets another black acquaintance as ‘my [that word]. It is affectionate and welcomed. So, Jackie Chan repeats it, and, of course, it leads to violence. Who can use it and who not?
This is not easy. How much power can we give a word? Does giving it so much power perpetuate the destructive power it currently has? Can the n-word – or any word – be liberated from its ability to cause pain?
Perhaps it can, but it has not yet done so, and it seems to me that those of us who represent that segment of society that has created the pain that word causes must listen to those who have felt the pain and abide by their wishes. Some words are just not mine to use. As much as I can use, perhaps I just should not.
So what do you think? We come here dedicated to a free faith, to lives of service and integrity and joy. Service to what, though? Service to justice certainly; service to affirming the worth and dignity of everyone; service to equity and compassion in our relationships; service to seeking the truth – the truth about ourselves as well as the truth about the world.
And integrity? How do we live lives of integrity? Is it when our lives match our values? Is it when we attempt to live up to our expectations – as Obama urged the nation to do on Wednesday? Is it when we are honest about our own failings, our own confusions – when we understand were racism exists in our own hearts or minds? When we use power to be over rather than with?
Look around you here. We are among the lucky, the privileged of the earth. There are struggles here to be sure; tragedies and sorrows here. But compared to many – as a whole we have it very good. What do we do with that? Do we open our doors or close them – to our own hearts and minds and to others?
Here is what I want to suggest you do: ask yourself about words that wound and how you use them or not, or how they have used against you. Reflect on that – drop me a note about your reflections if you wish. Secondly: read a book this year about some group historically disempowered – African Americans [I am going to read The Warmth of Other Suns] women, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans – you choose it.
Sticks and stones, indeed. Words can hurt and words can heal. Words can divide and words can unite. May we all choose those words of healing and uniting, and when we hear those words that can wound or which divide, call them out.
My thanks to the Neighborhood People of Color – they have given me more, and us more, than we know. People of courage and honesty, people struggling towards better lives, people of great humor and lots and lots of stories and wisdom.
I love you all. We are a good congregation, a beloved community. And that’s not bad at all ….
Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson
Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church