An Unsettling Vision Of An Ugly Word

I’ve been reading Garry WillsCertain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1994; a light and entertaining read this election season) over the past couple of days–on the subway, naturally. On Monday night, as I rode back to Brooklyn from Manhattan to pick up my daughter on daycare, I came to the chapter on Andrew Young (under the rubric ‘Diplomatic Leader’). In it, I read the following paragraph on page 75:

One of [Martin Luther] King’s tactics was to go around the police and politicians to ask businessmen if they did not want peace for their community. Young was especially helpful here. He played a key role in forming an accord with Birmingham businessmen. “As the night dragged on, both sides tended to credit the mild, unflappable Andrew Young with ideas that achieved overall balance by proceeding in mixed stages.” [citing Taylor Branch, Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (Simon and Schuster, New York, pp. 781)].

As I read this paragraph I did a double-take. I thought I had seen a word, which in point of fact was not present in the passage I had just read. Now, I sometimes see,  when I quickly glance at a portion of a text, a kind of verbal mash-up: words formed by running together the preliminary portion of a word in one below with the closing portion of a word in the line immediately below. Imagine for instance that I had run together the ‘gl’ of ‘glance’ above with the closing ‘ow’ of the ‘below’ which closes the sentence to form ‘glow.’ (A line intervenes between these two, but you catch my drift I hope.) When I look again, the word is gone.

But the ‘vision’ I had just had was of a different kind. For I had, disturbingly enough, seen that vile word, ‘nigger.’ Apparently, I had run together the ‘ni’ of ‘night’ with the ‘gge’ of ‘dragged’ (present in the quote from Taylor Branch’s book.) This was distinct from the kind described above, because I had ‘used’ words in the same line.

I think I have an explanation for why this happened. Look at the words that surround ‘night’ and ‘dragged’ in this passage: [Martin Luther] King, police, politicians, peace, Birmingham. When I see these words, especially in the context of the situation being described–the Civil Rights struggle in the Deep South–images present themselves to me. They are iconic; they arise without conscious invocation–you might know the ones I mean (police dogs, water cannons, marches, truncheons). They bring with them other connotations and associations.

One of them is the unending racial abuse directed at those who went on sit-downs, marches, rallies, and university and school integrations. The most common word in that torrent of abuse was ‘nigger,’ hurled again and again, with venom and spite and anger, conveying an unconcealed hatred and violence, spat in the face of those who dared step into the front line. I’ve seen it in the pages of every book on the civil rights struggle; I’ve heard it in every documentary.

On Monday night, I looked at a reminder of the battle for Civil Rights, and I saw it again. Perhaps this election season has primed me for it.

Note: For a similar experience, do read this post related to the Vietnam War.

2 comments on “An Unsettling Vision Of An Ugly Word

  1. An unsettling conclusion is that such priming (rooted in realities), can lead us to see offenses, slights, aggressions (micro and macro), etc, where none exist (which is not the same as saying they existed but were unintended). The human condition always finds a way to undermine the obvious.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Joe, yes, entirely possible. The priming sets you up to experience your environment differently – two subjects in the same domain will disagree quite substantively.

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