The Word

Friday, July 15, 2022

To Jeremiah’s eyes, the word sat fat on the page like a bull amongst calves. But to Ms. Jones’s—blue and swift and confidently as they moved—it lay in wait like some snake in the grass. Jeremiah didn’t want to see her get bit. She was a nice teacher, a young one too, and as it was with all nice, young white people he met, Jeremiah liked to imagine that Ms. Jones had never said the word, never even imagined saying it, and wouldn’t take the opportunity to say it, even if the opportunity presented itself, as it did now, with intellectual explanations and academic rationalizations ready as to why. Jeremiah wanted to believe, as he once had amongst his closest friends, that Ms. Jones was above the word—too wise for it, too kind for it, and that in her victory over it, by refusing to give the word voice, Jeremiah, whose ears it had haunted from the first time to the last, could have some victory as well. He wanted that victory, maybe somewhat for himself, but also for Ms. Jones’s sake. She was kind, and beautiful, and young, and white and Jeremiah’s belief in her, in the existence of people like her, hinged on the idea that she would never say the word. She’s a teacher. She’s an adult. Adults don’t say the word. But Jeremiah knew better than to believe that, even though he wished he didn’t, and also knew, deep down, that they’d all said it at one time or another.

Try this: Looooooooooord, until the sound go out...

They. All of Jeremiah’s classmates, who surrounded him on all sides, were them, and to them, Jeremiah was them, although around some, he could masquerade as us. The classroom sat in a rectangle, with all of the desks facing towards the center where Ms. Jones stood—reading, reciting— and from his seat by the blue-white wall, Jeremiah could see all of the faces around her—bored and tired and indifferent as they were—staring down at the text from which she taught. None of them were curious yet. None of them looked up as he did, searching the faces around them, asking with question mark eyes, punctuating brows, whether anyone else recognized Ms. Jones’s mistake. She must’ve thought about this. She must have had a plan for the word. But the speed at which she read implied otherwise. To her, it was nothing. A crack in the foundation. A brick amongst bricks. To Jeremiah—a bull amongst calves.

It's the other Lord she means…

He wondered who would laugh the loudest? Wyatt sat across, on the other side of the room, with dirty shorts, dirty shirt, dirty hair, and a smug grin, that permanent fixture—Jeremiah’s best friend. Jeremiah would never forget Wyatt’s first time—in the gym, beneath banners, over black hardwood, amid circles of friends. The pot called the kettle “nigger.” And the children laughed, as they always did. And Wyatt smiled at Jeremiah when he said it, and Jeremiah, shocked but not shocked, smiled back, as was expected, and in that moment, their friendship transformed. Then Wyatt relaxed, and Jeremiah relaxed (because there was no way for Wyatt to disappoint him ever again) and Wyatt saw Jeremiah’s smile, heard his laughter, and never looked back. From then on, he loved the word. Not for its history, its hate, its violence—but for its humor. Because it was racist, but the people who said it—people like him, young and harmless, with friends like Jeremiah—weren’t. To Wyatt, the word was hilarious coming from between his lips. Not racist. Not hateful. Ironic. A joke. One that Jeremiah was in on. Essential to. Without him there was no humor. Just history, violence, and hate.  Only every once in a while, when Jeremiah forgot to laugh, was he reminded:

“You know we’re just kidding, right?” or “We love you, Jeremiah.”

And Jeremiah believed them when they said it, for lack of a better option, yet still, could never discover in himself the peace of mind needed, the level of detachment necessary, to find the word funny. He hated the word. The way it separated him, the way it included him, the way it transformed him and the people that loved him. But he laughed anyway, for lack of a better option. In the gym, on the bus, in the hallways—Jeremiah knew what they called people like him who didn’t laugh. Pussy. Homo. Bitch. He would lose everything. All of Jeremiah’s friends. If he ruined their joke, the one thing he was necessary to, what else would they need him for?

Could it be our eyes too?

It was so close now, some of them must’ve seen it. Jeremiah watched as the room transformed. Wyatt’s eyes widened, staring at the page—his smug grin somehow more present than it always was. Many of the students, before uninterested in the language of William Faulkner, looked up and searched nearby faces for reactions like their own. Many looked to Jeremiah’s face, but he refused to betray dismay. This, he would not do. Finally, Ms. Jones saw the word, and Jeremiah knew, and the class knew, because she slowed down, hesitated. Jeremiah hoped and the class hoped—for opposite results, undoubtedly. He knew she could skip it. She didn’t have to say it. To her, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter what they thought, because she was an adult, and adults like the older folks at Jeremiah’s church, like Ms. Jones, didn’t worry themselves with the opinions of children like Jeremiah. Ms. Jones didn’t need to impress them. She didn’t need their love. She didn’t need the word.

“He ain’t better than a ______,” Nasty said. “Lord knows, been through Hell…

Jeremiah could’ve smiled, or shouted “Hallelujah,” like the people at his church did to express their joy. But he kept silent, reveled in the satisfaction of his classmates’ disappointment. Ms. Jones read faster than ever now, her cheeks pink beneath wide blue eyes, her legs shaking, ever so slightly, just enough to betray some vulnerability, the presence of which, Wyatt was the first (always searching) to pick up on. With that grin. He didn’t raise his hand to interrupt.

“Ms. Jones,” he said. “You forgot a word.”

Now, the sniggers. Jeremiah didn’t bother to glare at Wyatt. He stared at Ms. Jones, as everyone else did. But he did not worry. Ms. Jones was an adult. She had already defeated the word once, and Wyatt, who thought he could control it, could wield it, could mold it with intention—was nothing beside someone who understood that she couldn’t. Ms. Jones was better than him. She was better than the word, and here, right now, in this moment, Jeremiah was as well. Wyatt could not touch them.

“No one will read that word,” Ms. Jones said. “Not me, none of you.” She looked in the eyes of everyone except Jeremiah when she turned her head in swivels around the class. Then, since she had to punish Wyatt for being himself, she gave the boy his least favorite task, the one that he was worst at, to complete in front of all of his peers and classmates. “Popcorn, Wyatt.”

The broken lights in the room flickered, as though they knew. Wyatt’s grin remained, undeterred. He nodded over to his best friend.

“What about Jeremiah? Can he say it?”

Ms. Jones’s mouth opened, then closed. She stared at Wyatt, his smug look, without a reply, and that was when Jeremiah knew that the word had won. The teacher looked over to him, searching for an answer, but he couldn’t give her one. The idea of being forbidden from using the word, the one that had haunted Jeremiah, whose history scarred his ancestors and defiled his present, Jeremiah knew, seemed as wrong to Ms. Jones as forcing him to listen to his classmates use it. Yet, Jeremiah prayed that she would forbid it. Can he say it? Everyone stared at Jeremiah because everyone wanted to know. Ms. Jones gave him a sad look, an apologetic look, and then left him to face the word, alone.

“Jeremiah can do whatever he feels comfortable with,” she said.

Jeremiah, neither shocked nor surprised, didn’t respond, but Wyatt, whose turn it was to read, took the opportunity to say, with a look that told Jeremiah everything he needed to know about what was going to happen next—as though his best friend were the moral conductor, and Jeremiah and all of his classmates, the passengers: “Makes perfect sense to me.”

And so Wyatt read, skipping the word, as instructed, but not caring because, Jeremiah knew, what happened next mattered more to him than the word did, and Jeremiah’s best friend read a little more than the least he could, because he needed to get to the perfect place, the perfect place for Jeremiah to pick up where he left off, and then he got there. And that was when Wyatt announced to the class what, if Jeremiah had been considering himself at any moment through it all, should’ve seemed inevitable from the start: “Popcorn, Jeremiah.”

There it was, the sentence, racist and blasphemous. Wyatt, his best friend, knew that it was the perfect one for Jeremiah. To ruin him. To entertain. Curiosity bred silence—the classroom sat still as the frigid air outside, waiting for Jeremiah to answer the question Ms. Jones, well-meaning as she may have been, posed and abandoned him to. Jeremiah met their silence with silence, staring at the page, looking at the word, hating it, knowing what he couldn’t do, and what had to be done, and knowing that it couldn’t be done the right way, but had to be done nonetheless. The silence was too long, and grew louder by the minute. So he began to read.

God is a nig—

And that was when his voice cracked. It shattered, and with it, the class exploded and that was when his voice returned, soft but strong, and completed the word beneath their laughter and Ms. Jones’s admonishments—her own trying to control, yet disappearing beneath the heckles and cackles of Jeremiah’s classmates. And he knew they laughed, not because his voice cracked, but because he had said it the wrong way. The way people like him don’t say it—as one of his classmates’ parents would, as Ms. Jones would’ve—the way someone would pronounce a foreign word; an unfamiliar word—one which they usually did not say. And in that moment, he was beneath them, because it was a word they could say, they knew how to say, that he did not.

The damage was done. Jeremiah did not read the word again, but skipped over it, because he could not say it like the kids at his church said it, and he could not say it like the kids in his class said it, and so there was no way he could say it, because there were only two ways. And the word was his and the word was not his and it owned him and could not be claimed. And each time he skipped it, he could hear his classmates’ whispers. Why is he skipping it? He is one of them. Why won’t he say it? And Jeremiah realized that they all realized that he was not us, but neither was he them, and so it became a question of What exactly was he that he could not say a word invented to describe him, nor could he skip it so as to do what was expected, and so the question remained—the question that Ms. Jones, in all of her guilty uncertainty, had posed for him but couldn’t help him answer—even after he finished reading, even after he said “popcorn Emma,” and the next voice took over, skipping the word at every turn, guiltless, as instructed, as she knew to do—the question that Jeremiah asked but could not answer was Who am I? And his classmates, in all of their certainty, played hopscotch over the old text. And Jeremiah could only wonder. 

Friday, July 15, 2022