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Nigger hunt

As I deliver mail day to day, I think about American active and structural racism. It’s hard not to, given my past in the soup pot. My route runs through a suburban neighborhood activated and motivated by race. Except for one Black American woman and an African immigrant married to a white man, there are no Blacks or Black Americans on my daily rounds.

Racialist policies on the part of local, state, and federal governments created the space. Federal highway building opened former farmland and prairie to development. Redlining after the War and then white-flight from urban neighborhoods after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education ending segregation in public schools made these first-ring suburbs white enclaves. Further rhetoric from real-estate developers, government officials, and corporate leadership solidified a long-held American belief that urban environments were dangerous and crime-ridden.

By the mid-twentieth century, the city was equated in the minds of many white Americans as Black, dirty, and run-down. There was some truth to this, but racism created these conditions. Americans are not a historically minded people. They tend to celebrate knowing only what’s in front of them. Rare was a movement to “improve” the city without destroying it. By the time of mid- and late-century urban renewal efforts on the part of governments of all levels, highways, interstates, and redevelopment of urban spaces most often destroyed Black and poor neighborhoods, creating the conditions in which many Black Americans struggled to end generational poverty and escape de facto segregation.

This is not to say Black Americans were powerless. Black Americans carved out meaningful lives and happy families in segregated neighborhoods. Despite the odds, Black American children struggled through crummy educations and made their way to colleges, were successful in trades, and became poets, writers, and filmmakers.

When I think about the soup pot, an incident from early childhood comes to mind. We lived in a small house in a white neighborhood by our white Catholic church and school. It was a quiet side street in an older Kansas City suburb. We knew our neighbors, even just in passing, and they were all white. I was only on the cusp of five years old at the time. I don’t think I was even in kindergarten yet.

A young man lived across the street by the name of Fred. He had often been friendly to me and my brother and sister (my youngest sister was just a baby at the time). Wrenching on cars was his hobby and he was very proud of his.

One balmy summer night, Fred knocked on the door. I looked out the door and saw him and accompanied my dad as he opened the door. Fred was excited and animated.

“You have your rifle oiled and ready to go?” he said to my dad. He stood at the bottom of the stoop and my dad in the doorway holding the door open with me at his side.

“Yes,” my dad said, “I always take care of my guns.”

“Some niggers got into my car last night and stole my stereo,” he said. He, like my dad, was a gun enthusiast. I had never heard the n-word before because while Black Americans were never held in great esteem in my house and more or less considered stereotypes prevalent among white Americans at the time, my parents never used the pejorative.

“I can’t believe they came into this neighborhood and broke into my car,” Fred continued. “What do you say we stay up tonight and keep watch? We can go on a nigger hunt.”

My father was a hunter. Every year, he and a couple of his pals went off to woods somewhere in Missouri and shot at deer. While my dad was not much of a bird hunter, he went every fall to the country to shoot at quail and doves. As most young boys who look up to their fathers, I thought of my father as a hero who could do no wrong. The difference between human beings stealing stereos and other animals my father hunted did not register with me. The destructive power of rifles and pistols was unknown to me. I didn’t understand what shooting another living being meant. In addition, guns fascinated me, as they seemed so important and precious to my dad.

“Well, let’s see,” my dad said to Fred.

“Dad, can I go on the nigger hunt with you?” I said.

He looked down at me. “Just hold on, son.”

“Yeah,” Fred said, “bring your boy. It’ll be good for him to help stop these niggers from terrorizing our neighborhood.”

Slowly it was dawning on me that the word connoted human beings. But I was enamored of my father and was interested in being a part of whatever my father was involved in. I tugged at my dad’s jeans. “Come on, dad, let me go with you on the hunt.”

“No, Pat, let’s see what Fred has to say,” he said. He turned to Fred.

“I saw a couple of them walking down the street yesterday in the evening,” Fred said. What were they doing here?”

“Well, Fred, why don’t we just wait and see. You know, just to make sure. I’ll meet you this evening and keep watch on your cars.”

“Whoo, hoo!” shouted Fred. He took off running, looking back at us. “We’re huntin’ niggers!”

My dad stepped in and closed the door. He sat me on the couch and said, “Look, son, if what Fred says is true, this is a serious problem.”

“So, we’re going on a hunt?”

“I’ll sit out with Fred tonight. But I’m not bringing any guns and we’ll call the police if we need to.”

I asked him what the n-word was.

“Listen, we don’t use words like that.”

“Why not?”

“We just don’t use words like that. But we’ll see tonight if there are any Black men wandering the block.”

It was only when my father said “men” that the connection between the word and human beings became clear to me. In my child-like way, I saw that Fred, at least, was willing to use guns to protect his property and that maybe guns were more malign than I understood. I also learned some words burn into the consciousness of little boys, and those boys–who later become men–can never escape the scars they leave.

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