When walking down 34th street to pick up train tickets to the Washington Inauguration on Monday, MLK Day, I heard someone shout out the N word. Looking up it turned out to be a white person yelling it at another white person. Really! Enraged, bitter, full of hate, the man spit the word out in the course of several other obscenities. Initially I thought I heard him wrong, but then, he said it again! “That’s a first,” I muttered resisting the urge to scream out F-you in response while still within shouting distance. “No, not today” I appealed to my better angel, but then immediately felt ashamed at not saying anything.
“What’s gotten into you?’ I argued with myself going below ground into the lobby adjacent to the Amtrak ticketing section. But then, stepping off the elevator, I heard the word again said jokingly by two young people at first glance of indeterminate race working behind a donut counter. They could have been Asian, Arab, Latino, perhaps even African American, definitely people of color, but of a hue difficult to easily or quickly place in this increasingly multi-cultural morass called New York.
This time, though there was no surprise: one of the unfortunate by-products of hip hop culture (which ironically played an enormously understated role in getting Barack Obama elected president) is the easy and frequent use of the N word in urban street discourse.
I just couldn’t get away from it – and this on the day celebrating Martin Luther King’s life and legacy.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Not long after Election Day, a group of young thugs from Bensonhurst, enraged by Obama’s victory, went out with baseball bats searching for easy victims. In fact, after the November success, hate crimes were up, as were gun sales despite the economic hardship spreading across the land. Victory at times can be more dangerous than defeat, proving vigilance is neglected at everyone’s peril.
I was surprised therefore to read Monday morning of a King celebration in San Francisco where a pastor suspended the traditional King march in favor of an in-door program, emphasizing the celebratory quality of the moment, claiming now is not the time to protest.
“Was that appropriate?” I wondered with mixed feelings, knowing full well that The Dream while drawing closer remains far in the distance for most. On the one hand, appropriateness of time and place is an issue. Part of me understood the minister’s bent of mind and the desire to give pause and praise the moment. Surely, the millions who assembled on the Washington Mall on Tuesday came not in protest but in jubilee celebration of what for most was a Juneteenth moment, a joyful collective shout of huge accomplishment and Yes We Can, a positive affirmation of love for everything that is great and wonderful in America.
But as if I needed a reminder, here as I was on my way to celebrate was an epithet of genocide, torture and hate tossed now with brine (at a white person no less), and then a moment later, easily and with a laugh on a sacred day of reverence and memory, on the eve of a history none of us ever dreamed.
Take a pause for the cause? Maybe. But the body that breeds hatred and despair seems never to rest and when set back can grow even more dangerous.
Yes a great and wide plateau has been reached, but the mountain still looms. Today we celebrate: tomorrow we march.