By Roger Barbee
Growing up in the 1950s, I was like all the other boys in my neighborhood - I liked baseball, played it whenever the weather was good, and my favorite professional team was the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Each year I yearned for a victory against the dreadful New York Yankees and learned how to bear disappointment as they often lost to the crosstown rivals.
I learned to ignore insults as adults and friends referred to my beloved team as "that n****r team." In fact, in the years of my early growth, the derogatory term for blacks was used by almost everyone I knew. It was a commonly used word, and few gave it much thought. The folks who did consider it unkind used the word "colored." Today, in the valley, I do not hear that awful term used in reference to black citizens for a variety of reasons, but mostly I hope because people have come to understand how horrible a word it is, and how it demeans the user as well as the person to whom it refers.
However, another word seems to have taken its place.
Too often, even once in church, I have heard people use the word Mexican to refer to any person of Latino heritage. This summer when I commented about the closing of a popular spot on the North Fork to swimmers, a man in the group remarked, "It's because all the Mexicans go there and cause trouble." When I asked him how he knew, he remarked in a loud voice, "We all do."
Well, I didn't.
Two years ago, while chatting with a man at church, he remarked that the boxcars parked on the local tracks north of Mt. Jackson were "for the Mexicans to live in." It seems, at times, that we have simply replaced a derogatory word with something pejorative. Are we so insecure in our own skins that we need to lash out at other members of our society in an attempt to show that, by use of a mean-spirited, misplaced word, we are somehow better than they?
William Faulkner wrote of some people so full of hate that they viewed everyone as an adversary. In his short story "Barn Burning," Abner Snopes, a tenant farmer, is so mean that he burns a man's barn to get even for a perceived slight and marches into the home of his new employer with manure on his boots, spreading it on an imported rug in the process. When told by the angry employer to remove the manure from the rug, Snopes uses lye to do it, and returns the rug full of large bleached spots. Fired, Snopes burns his former employer's barn before leaving the area.
Abner Snopes is a man ruled by hate, and it ruins his life.
In a recent article in the Northern Virginia Daily, Leonard Pitts Jr. writes of Billy and Paula Smith of Ludowici, Ga., who manufacture bumper stickers, including one that reads: "Don't Re-Nig: 2012" Evidently it is selling because a reader in Broward County, Fla. saw one on a car.
When contacted by Forbes magazine, Mrs. Smith responded, "We didn't mean it in a racist way."
By using the first three letters of a horrible word, how could they not have meant it to be racist? Or will they do whatever is necessary to sell a bumper sticker?
All speakers and writers choose the words they use, and those words reflect the feelings and thoughts of the speaker or writer. As George Orwell observes in "Politics and the English Language," the words we use influence our thinking and reflect our thoughts. Oswald Chambers, the Scottish theologian, writes in "Biblical Philosophy," that "there ought to be in us a holy scorn whenever it comes to being dictated to by the spirit of the age in which we live."
We all live in an age, and if we live long enough, several ages. Each has its trends, trials, and triumphs. Being a baby boomer, I have experienced two profound ages - the '50s and '60s, with each leaving its mark on me.
I now live in a totally different age that, at times, baffles me.
For instance, why would any teen choose to wear dirty and ripped clothes that were purchased that way? However, that is harmless and, like long hair on males before, will eventually be accepted as ordinary.
We all want to belong, and going with what is popular is important to some, especially the young. Trends in clothing and hair will not mark an individual, just make him or her feel that he or she belongs.
However, what will have a negative influence on us is the use of derogatory words for a person we see as not like us. When we use such words we put that person in a place that is not respectful of his humanity and culture. We are using such language as a means of power. That is wrong. We are all different, but we are all the same and created by the same. So, let us all follow Chambers' words and hold in "holy scorn" the dictates of our age.
Or you can be like the bumper sticker-making Smiths and believe that words do not mean what they mean.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org