Incident

 

 

The King James translation  for me is delightful reading because of its words. While I stumble across some of them and phrases in the three-hundred-year-old translation, I enjoy its poetry and even its archaic words. For instance, this morning I read “Forbearing one another” and thought how we have lost that good word, forbear, meaning to resist something or tolerate something or an act. Looking into Hart’s modern translation of the same verse I  found that he writes “Upholding one another,…”  Both translations are widely accepted, and while I am not a reader of Greek, I understand how the same Greek word can be translated differently. Not all translations from any foreign language carry the same weight, of course, so it behooves us to always remember the words of Robert Fitzgerald,  “If you want to read Homer, learn Greek.”

Thinking of words and their heavy influence and even power,  caused me to think of John Schnatter, or Papa John, as he has fashioned himself. An on-line article by Forbes magazine of July 11, 2018, reports on his use of an anti-black word for blacks while on a conference call with Laundry Service, a hired marketing firm.  The conference call, between executives from Papa John’s and Laundry experts, was  designed to help Schnatter role play so as not to make a costly statement like he did during the 2017 NFL knelling protests when he publicly complained about sales of pizza. Quoting the Forbes article,  “On the May call, Schnatter was asked how he would distance himself from racist groups online. He responded by downplaying the significance of his NFL statement. ‘Colonel Sanders called blacks n—–s’, before complaining that Sanders never faced public backlash.” Later Schnatter confirmed the allegations. “News reports attributing the use of inappropriate and hurtful language to me during a media training session regarding race are true,” he said. “Regardless of the context, I apologize. Simply stated, racism has no place in our society.” The Forbes article I read had over 800,000 views and, under fire, Schnatter soon resigned as chairman of the company he created.

The great poet Countee Cullen published his poem Incident, in 1925 , and in it he uses the same word as Schnatter. Here is the short poem:

Once riding in old Baltimore,

Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,

I saw a Baltimorean

Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,

And he was no whit bigger,

And so I smiled, but he poked out

His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’

I saw the whole of Baltimore

From May until December;

Of all the things that happened there

That’s all that I remember.

 

Whether Incident actually happened or not is not important, but it echoes truth.  What is important is that Cullen shares with us how his smile of kindness was received by a rude gesture and an awful anti-black word.  In sixteen lines the reader is exposed to a sad reality of 1925 that continues to today. Anti-black is all around us and well.

However, if we give Cullen’s poem and the conference call of Schnatter a close reading, we see that the same word is uttered, but with, I suggest, a strong difference. The young, white boy in Baltimore has learned his racial  lesson well, for when he sees a smiling black  face, he reacts by making an offensive gesture (for an eight-year-old boy) and uses the worst of words to describe, in his mind, the other youngster. John Schnatter, however, does not use the  word in the context of  being anti-black.  All words carry denotation and connotation such as the word “foxy”. The white boy in Baltimore uses his slur in the denotative,  but Schnatter, as he unfortunately says the word,  does not use it as a pejorative. He is stating what he sees as an example of the word’s history and admits that he is baffled how, some forty years ago, a seller of fried chicken could use the word without a backlash.

That word will not go away and is sadly still used as an adjective or noun. It carries weight and hurts and angers and shocks. However, it also can, as Schnatter sadly learned, be a poor word choice, no  matter the speaker’s or writer’s intent. But, can we not use that archaic word-forbear- in some situations and, as Hart translates, “uphold” one another in times of an unfortunate trespass of the tongue?

 

 

 

 

 

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