By Philip Harris
I grew up in a small town. Well, not even in a small town, but between two small towns. Most of our neighbors had dairy farms. I rode a bus to school. We were the second stop to get on and the next to last to get off. This is when I did most of my homework.
There were two elementary schools in Mercer, the closer of the two small towns. For the first 2 years I went to the West Elementary, the ‘new’ one story school built of modern design and yellow brick. In second grade, we were transferred to the red brick East Elementary, the ‘old’ school, built in 1900 with a sagging second floor and a blacktop playground. I would be here until Junior High School.
Oh, the stories I could tell, rambling accounts with way too little detail. But, there is only one story for today, and it involves Beth Maxwell.
Beth Maxwell was in my class. I don’t remember a whole lot about Beth Maxwell other than she was smart, and kind of quiet, and when this event unfolded, we were in the 4th Grade.
We were doing some kind of science project and it required lighting a match. Yes, these were wild times, but we somehow survived.
Anyway, I had just learned how to use a “Strike Anywhere” match using the friction of my own pants, and, I, being a trendsetter, couldn’t wait to try it out.
So we’re doing this project and I’m trying to light my “Strike Anywhere” match (which I had brought with me), and I’m struggling a little bit because I’m not wearing jeans but some kind of polyester blend trousers (it was the mid 60s, after all), and I’m looking at the members of my group and I’m starting to blush and then I begin to sweat. And finally, after getting the match lit, I look up at Beth Maxwell and say,
“I’m sweating like a nigger at an election.”
I really don’t know what it meant, I had heard my friend Dave’s dad Fred use that expression when he was working in his garage, and everyone laughed, and I thought everyone in my group would find it hilarious. Nobody laughed. Beth just looked at me with an expressionless face that somehow conveyed shock. It dawned on me that this wasn’t funny, and that I had bombed.
I was young, and THAT word was thrown around quite a bit by the adults around me. I didn’t really know, nor could appreciate, the hate and ugliness associated with it. I wouldn’t find out ‘til much later that my ‘quip’ wasn’t funny at all, unless you were racist, and that African Americans were denied the right to vote through Jim Crow laws, intimidation, and poll taxes, and that they would sweat because they could be killed just for voting. And many were.
Yeah, it wasn’t funny; it was horrific.
I remember a couple years later watching a news special about the 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and I wrote quotes from the “I Have a Dream” Speech in my notebook. I was deeply moved and, by the end of the program, which recounted Dr. King’s assassination, I was sobbing. I was growing up.
I’ve come a long way since that day in 4th Grade and it’s rare to hear THAT word used by an intelligent adult outside of a Quentin Tarantino movie, or a rap song, but it still happens every once in a while. I find it shocking, but I do my best to address it or just leave the room. It’s dumb.
So today, on Martin Luther King Day 2017, I want to formally apologize to Beth Maxwell for using THAT word, and to you, my enraptured reader, for making you read THAT word. And to everyone that’s been hurt by THAT word and all the slimy rot that it represents, I, as a fellow human being, am truly sorry.
And to all the 4th Graders, young and old, who still use THAT word: school’s out.