“Nigger!” The drive-by shout comes from two male voices. Like a gunshot, the two-syllable word, with strong emphasis on the second, is aimed toward the sidewalk. Swirling dust from arid soil, topped with crushed clam shells instead of gravel, carpet the driveway and parking lot of Warren’s Old Town Wharf. In seconds, the word registers in my right ear through humidity, heat, and wind. I lower the camcorder, glance around to see the person for whom the word is intended.
Amused, I think of the courage it takes to fling a centuries-old slur toward a woman standing alone. Was a 21st century cherished sister, aunt, wife, and daughter supposed to be intimidated? Feel less than? Get angry? Raise a fist or middle finger and respond belatedly, “Crackers! Ofays! PsychoMoFos!?” When their vehicle whizzed by, I was standing on Water Street, holding a camcorder eye-level, waiting for mini dust devils to calm down, before getting footage of the Historic Town Wharf street sign. By the time their yell reached me, gone was the chance to make note of their car or license plate.
Their DNA brain synapses, coded with a psychopathic sense of generational superiority, must have received a pleasurable jolt, just by yelling the n-word. Epigenetics: the process by which genetic information is translated into the substance and behavior of an organism: specifically, the study of the way in which the expression of heritable traits is modified by environmental influences or other mechanisms without a change to the DNA sequence. In other words, ancestral emotions and mental baggage may lurk within, just as genetic markers do for predisposition toward body type and disease.
The domestic terrorism of, and resultant trauma experienced by, my African ancestors enslaved for almost three centuries is surely part of my DNA. I used to wonder what the root cause was of Black church members who whooped, hollered, and shook like they were having epileptic fits whenever soul-felt, foot-stomping gospels, in time with piano and organ strikes emphasizing pastor’s words, were sung-shouted over, and over, and over. ‘Catching’ the Holy Spirit never seemed to fully explain the deep reverberations that flowed from the person, throughout the sanctuary, and to others who nodded as if to say, “I feel you.” Now I wonder if every shout and tremor is profound therapeutic release, excising anxiety from living in a racist world, shaking loose clingy layers of terror and pain of our ancestral past. If so, we were light years ahead of the 1970’s primal scream therapy “created” by psychologist Arthur Janov to “repeatedly descend into, feel, and experience long-repressed childhood pain.”
The suffering of my enslaved kin is yet in my genes, but, more importantly, I have awakened to their DNA-coded legacy of emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual superiority that enabled their survival. A people oppressed does not equate broken in spirit. As Paula Allen Gunn says, “...the root of oppression is loss of memory.” When we the living remember the past, honor our African ancestors, and fill-in the blanks of history books which have not told our American story, truthfully, we can stand on a sidewalk when the n-word is hurled, and look around to wonder to whom, these six letters of the alphabet are intended.
Even so, a part of me is a little alarmed by the drive-by. It’s not the word, but the unknown intention behind it. Am I being tracked? Will they be back? A thousand miles from home, alone and unarmed, should I be worried about physical harm? I am not about to become a “Make America Great Again” hate crime victim on the six-o-clock news.
I walk into the Wharf’s first boutique, a tiny one-level converted home with artwork and cards. Its interior is light and airy with glass shelf displays. A female young millennial behind the desk hears my story. I wonder out loud if they’ll be back, should I call the police. I think about alerting John, the director of the Rhode Island Writer’s Colony, an African American, and my host, who has lived in Warren for some time.
The young woman responds with an apology for their behavior which I cannot accept. I tell her to not apologize for a stranger’s conduct and word choice. She says that I shouldn’t have anything to worry about, that they were probably not from Warren. It’s summer and tourist traffic is high, with cars motoring through small-town Warren, headed to or from Bristol, Newport, and Providence. Then she says something that surprises me, “But what do I know? I’m white and I have no idea what you must be feeling right now. You should do what feels right for you. I know a lot of whites here. They would be appalled to hear this happened in Warren. Stay here as long as you like.” I wonder if she will tell someone about her day, anticipating a tourist sale, but getting drama she’s probably never experienced. I hope she’s a writer or poet who will scribble and voice her perspective or maybe share on social media.
I’m thankful for the air-conditioned space to figure out my next move. In my youth, I’d be angry and flustered for hours. Because it’s my birthday and the first time I’ve ever heard the n-word hurled in my direction, I wonder what the universe wants me to pay attention to. It’s clear this happened so I could write about it later. I quickly conclude the drive-by shout is a molecule of water riding on the crest of the nation’s ever-present racial tension. It’s an itsy-bitsy reminder that while I am, of course, wonderful and extraordinary to loved ones, I’m just one of 7.4 billion earthlings. I’m not immune to hatred, white supremacists, shouting cowards, or the generational baggage of others. Exposed today, yes, but not scarred emotionally or physically. The whole experience is so ironic as to be cosmically comedic. I am miles from family and my husband of twenty-six years, at a writer’s colony, continuing my pilgrimage to America’s historic transatlantic slave trade ports to honor our nation’s first Africans and, here, in a port town of less than eleven thousand, is where I finally join ranks with millions who’ve survived this tired and outdated epithet, and with the thousands who, with their last breaths, may have heard its insistent evil-minded shout, enunciated from spittle-flying pink lips, bulging eyes and red ears and faces.
I decide to let go of what does not serve me. No word flung by white boys will ruin my natal day. The word nigger has nothing to do with seventeen generations of enslaved persons (and three generations of 20th century sharecroppers and chain gangs) whose enforced free labor buoyed America’s economic growth, commerce, and therefore, the stability for it to become a nation. Not disregarding the genocide and enslavement of native Amerindians and their encroached lands that also allowed for America’s growth; enslaved and free black hands, black feet, and steely black backs and milk from black breasts galvanized ethnic Europeans to band as white Americans and build an infrastructure of privilege while oppressing others.
It is estimated that, of the 10.7 million enslaved Africans who survived the transatlantic Middle Passage, only 450,000 were shipped and imported to North America in the 17, 18th and 19th centuries. The majority were imported to South America and the Caribbean. Incredibly, today’s Black Americans are descended from less than five percent of the total 10.7 million Middle Passage survivors. The word nigger has nothing to do with America’s incredible multiethnic, multicultural, and multilingual first Africans of the transatlantic Middle Passage or their descendants, enslaved or ‘free’. The word nigger has everything to do with white privilege. Becoming powerless, the n-word is gasping its last breath in the dawn of an awakened and browning world. The root of oppression as loss of memory crumbles as America’s remembrance renaissance roots itself into exploring “the half never told” about America’s colonial complicity and economic dependency on enslavement; the stories of African rebellion, survival; and the stories of terroristic tactics used to increase captives’ productivity in cotton fields. How long does it take for an oppressed people to rise up and collectively heal? Black Americans live the journey.
I leave the art shop and walk a few yards to continue my pilgrimage at Warren’s historic Town Wharf. It is one of forty-eight documented transatlantic slave ports in America. On the way, I clear reverberations of the n-word from my body, fling them in the direction of the car and its courageous occupants. They can luxuriate in it. In a nation’s population slated to be less white, the n-word as a racial slur will either become passé, or a prayer: every time whites use it, their bodies receive a high blast of melanin, straight hair gets curly, curly hair gets kinky, and blue eyes morph dark brown—all so they can blend in with the majority.
With my billowing, righteous cape, I try to invoke the spirit of forgiveness, to say the loving kindness Buddhist-based meditation mantra meant for difficult persons: May your heart be peaceful and free from hatred and grudges. May you be happy. May your body be healthy and strong. May you be well and happy. But, deep down, resistance emerges. I think of how the first media words from a Black survivor of the 2015 massacre at Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina, forgave the white young man who walked into their prayer circle and shot and killed nine Black Americans. Couldn’t I at least try and be as transformative, forgiving?
Nuh, unh. I don’t hate them, I just have little energy for them today. Let other energies of the universe love on them. I’m reserving energy to honor ancestors. At Warren’s historic colonial Town Wharf, a metal ramp near the Warren River rests upon a concrete and fenced viewing platform. Several people access their sailboats from the ramp while I videotape the river’s mile-and-a-half southward flow to its confluence with Narragansett Bay whose waters, in turn, meet the Atlantic twenty-three miles farther south. I imagine the hustle and bustle of a long-ago harbor. Loggers and wood plank planers shaping ship parts, producing casks; metal workers smelting iron for nails and human restraints; and mounds of slave cloth stacked onshore, encased in oilcloth for the journey to the deep South.
After videotaping and taking a few still photos, I walk four blocks from the Wharf to the Coffee Depot on Main Street. I order a blueberry-hibiscus iced tea using the gift card from the Rhode Island Writer’s Colony before sinking into an oversized leather chair. Tapping a few words into my laptop, I get the urge to share the cosmic-inspired birthday gift, so I text John, director of the Writer’s Colony.
Was at town wharf…got called the Nword for the first time ever…at coffee depot now.
Instantly, John texts back: By who give me a Description I am on my way I have never had that happen here.
Guys driving by did not look fast enuf for desc.
Within minutes John arrives at the Coffee Depot. He, just like the millennial at the art boutique, apologizes for the incident. I give him the same spiel as I gave her. It feels good, though, to have John take on the role of a shining knight. In the past week, I have received birthday cards from my husband every day and flowers were delivered the day before. His desire for me to have a happy birthday when he is 1,397 miles away means a great deal. When we chat tonight I will not tell him about the drive-by. Even though I’ve dealt with it, I know his worry meter will go into overdrive. He may even ask me to reconsider traveling alone on the pilgrimage. Better to spill the beans as a shoo-fly anecdote when I return home.
When I started this journey to historic transatlantic slave trade port sites I asked Spirit for three things: protection from bodily harm; to meet Black Americans in pursuit of ancestor remembrance; and for opportunities to meet writers of color. So, I believed my luck when, after returning from my June pilgrimage to Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia, I saw the Rhode Island Writer’s Colony (RIWC) webpage seeking submissions for their upcoming colony in late August. Just three years young, RIWC was established for emerging writers of color by brothers Brook and John Stephenson. Brook, who died in his forties in 2015, was, among other accolades, a writer and literary general manager of a popular bookstore in New York. Brook’s vision for providing “time and space” to writers had only one rule: write, read, and ponder during the day, but come together for dinner, wine, and literary discussion at night.
Like so many of the port sites I’ve journeyed to, Warren is unique in its slave trade history as well as its 21st century charm. It’s the kind of small east coast town where you come to visit and dream about one day living, but know intuitively that it will never be the same as your first visit. The day after I arrived, John introduced me to a trio of white women digging up facts about Warren’s colonial complicity in the slave trade, tracing stories of Warren’s few freed and enslaved Africans, and warmth to my heart, championing the cause to place a historical maker at the historic town hall building. Their enthusiasm for truth-telling inspires hope for reconciliation.
The quest to become a better writer and trace footsteps of New England’s first Africans led me to a street corner in Warren, Rhode Island, on my birthday. Having had such an exceptional day, imagination wanders: if a painter drew me after the drive-by n-word was hurled, the canvas would reflect me at the Old Town Wharf, bowing down to African elders, a male and female, their heads inclined toward me with beatific smiles as they hover over ancestral waters. Me, in awe of their presence, passage, and survival. Them, acknowledging the generations manifest, in a 21st century Afro-being. All of us whole, unsullied by time, place, or arrogance.
Kim-Marie Walker’s debut memoir is Zebras from Heaven. Recent published works are in NILVX, Track//Four, The Compassion Anthology, and The Talking Stick. She is a VONA/Voices alum and currently on a solo pilgrimage to historic U.S. transatlantic slave trade ports to honor Middle Passage ancestors. For more information please visit www.kimmariewalker.com.