OPINION: Choose words with caution and care in case they linger

By Leslie Criss/NEMS Daily Journal

“Nothing is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When I was a little girl, probably about 7, I did something that, all these years later, I still regret.
We lived next door to a family whose two pre-teen sons were, well, bad. I’ve often wondered if either ended up unfortunately incarcerated.
I’d recently gotten a new game called Tickle Bee. I’d been sitting on our front porch, playing the game when called inside for supper.
I left my game outside and after supper, it was gone. I didn’t see it again until a few days later when I saw the neighbor kids playing with it in their yard.
During that summer, my dad and his three brothers were working to build their fledgling accounting firm. My mother was helping my dad, so my parents hired a woman to look after my little sister and me during the day. She also ironed and did some housekeeping.
Her name was Queenanna and she was black.
Her color matters not one whit, but for this story.
I don’t recall a whole lot of strict rules in our family, just those you’d expect: Behave, respect your parents and elders, eat your vegetables and say “yes/no, ma’am” and “yes/no, sir.”
And never, ever use the “n” word. It’s a word I have always deplored.
Back then, I had not learned about racism or that the word was used in a pejorative manner regarding African-Americans. I just knew it was the worst thing you could say. To anyone.
So, one early afternoon after my Tickle Bee game disappeared, I looked out our living room window and saw the thieves next door with my game. Queenanna stood behind me, ironing.
As I watched those boys, my 7-year-old anger amplified until I did not know what to do with it. That’s when, in a low whisper, I called them the word I was never supposed to use. I called them that because, at the time, they were the most despicable people in my 7-year-old world.
Behind me stood a black woman who watched over my sister and me. She was ironing our clothes. And she heard the word that came from my mouth.
I remember pleading with her to believe I was talking to two awful white boys. I remember her looking at me with total disbelief and sending me to my room.
When my parents came home that afternoon, she told them what I’d done and that she would not be back.
I did not get in trouble, but I felt sick. And the memory has stayed strong more than four decades.
How often I’ve wished we could have sat down as adults, Queenanna and I. I would have shown her my heart, all grown up. I would have told her I’m sorry.
And that I’ve never forgotten.
Contact Leslie Criss at leslie.criss@djournal.com or (662) 678-1584.

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