Booker T. Washington struggled against deep-seated prejudice to establish his Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. One day, as he passed the mansion of a wealthy women to whom he was just another black, he heard her call out, “Come here, boy, I need some wood chopped.” Without a word, Washington peeled off his jacket, picked up the ax and went to work, not only cutting a pile of wood but carrying it into the house.
He had scarcely left when a servant said, “That was Professor Washington, M’am.” Abashed, the woman went to the Institute to apologize. Replied the educator: “There’s no need to apologize, Madame. I’m delighted to do favors for my friends.” The woman became one of Tuskegee’s warmest and most generous supporters. Washington refused to be disturbed by insult or persecution.
An NFL player has been found to have called an African American teammate the N-word in a hateful phone message. I have heard countless commentators using the B-word, i.e. bully, to describe the accused, and making a victim of the recipient of the tirade. The incident has become a huge drama in the sports world, and unnecessarily in my opinion.
I understand that I am a white man, and that maybe I can’t appreciate the many years of slavery and abuse blacks have experienced that gives power to the word nigger. But maybe it’s time we all grow past the meaning we ascribe to words like this instead of using it as an excuse to stay stuck in old stereotypes and justify our angry reactions.
I teach kids to keep their power and never let words get to them; that words end up meaning whatever meaning we give them. You can let them hurt your feelings and provoke a reaction, or you can keep your power and not let teasing bother you. Any name-calling is disrespectful and inappropriate, and it’s good to set boundaries to take care of yourself.
But I want kids to emulate the example of Booker T. Washington, and to display a higher level of maturity, and strength. Tell your children stories like this one, depicting real courage in action.