Sticks and Stones

I remember the first time anyone ever called me the n-word. My brother and I were walking down 82nd Street in Portland, Oregon in the late 80s. We had just moved to Portland and were a thousand miles away from our people, Black people, and the family we loved. Our mom had decided to move us to escape the growing gang violence and drugs that started flooding into Omaha at that time. We grew up in North Omaha, and before the gangs moved in, our family was responsible for a lot of the underground stuff that went on there. So despite all of the violence and other things, I never felt scared when it came to that. At least not until I read an article in the World Herald about Crips and Bloods coming from Southern California and taking over the streets of North Omaha. To me, gangs meant the end of the Omaha I grew up in. Crips meant Crypt, death, the end. Blood meant exactly that, blood on the streets, no more walks down 24th Street to Lothrop Drugs to pick up our weekly supply of comic books, no more standing on the corner bus stop to go downtown and hang out. I’d miss my Maw Maw and Paw Paw, and all of my friends and family, but I was happy to feel safe again, even if I didn’t know what I was getting into or where we were going. We moved into a mainly white area of town where my Uncle Larry had lived in Portland since the 60s and my mom had visited a few times. He knew the area and told us how safe and clean it was, but only a few months after our arrival, an Ethiopian immigrant was brutally beaten to death by racist skinheads a few miles from our home. I spent a lot of time being depressed, staring out of my bedroom window at the thick needles of pine trees and soupy grey mist that never seemed to go away. I reread a lot of comic books to pass the time, but I mostly thought about my family and friends that I missed back home.

One day soon after we got there, my brother and I decided to go explore the neighborhood.

Immediately, eyes were upon us. There weren’t many minorities living in Southeast Portland back then, and I think our appearance, two tall, lanky teenage black boys with Jheri curls, might’ve startled a few people. As my brother and I walked down the busy street of 82nd, we were suddenly bombarded by a word that created a moment that would stay with us for life. This was not just any word, but a venomous slur, dripping with hatred and malice, aimed directly at us. “NIGGER!!!” The young white men in a pale yellow sanded down Camero screamed at the top of his lungs. “Go back to Northeast!!!” We’d heard a version of the word before, everyone in our family used it, except for us, lol. My Maw Maw always told us that it was a bad word and should never be directed at one another, so we didn’t. This was before it was popularized in music, entertainment, and video games everywhere. It’s lost its bite, the N-word is mainstream now and being used by every race, and every genre of entertainment, at this point I’m not even sure who really finds it offensive anymore. But at that time, I did. It has never been screamed at me, never with the hard “ER”, and despite being bussed to a white school in the Midwest for a number of years, I’d never heard it from a white person. My brother and I went crazy. We took off after the car as fast as we could. We were mad and ready to fight the dude who yelled at us and whoever was in there with him. They kept driving, we ran until we got tired and then spent the whole day upset, hurt by our own stupidity in believing that because we treated everyone equally they would do the same.

In that moment, I came to understand the terrifying power of words. They can be used as weapons, wielded with the intent to harm and destroy. They have the power to wound us in ways that physical violence never could.

It was around that time that Malageta Saharw was beaten to death by the skinheads.

Malageta Saharw was a 28-year-old Ethiopian immigrant who had been living in the United States for about two years before his tragic death. On August 15, 1988, Malageta was attacked by a group of six white supremacist skinheads in Southeast Portland. The skinheads beat Malageta with baseball bats and other weapons, shouting racial slurs and taunts at him as they attacked.

Malageta was left lying on the street with severe head injuries and was taken to a local hospital, where he died two days later. The skinheads responsible for Malageta’s death were members of a white supremacist group called East Side White Pride, which had a history of violence and hate crimes in the Portland area. This attack made national news. I remember my grandparents begging my mom to send us back home, so that we could be safe.

The fear and anger that coursed through me was overwhelming. How could people be so filled with hate that they would take someone’s life because of the color of their skin? Did all white people feel this way towards us? The N-word suddenly had a lot more power over me than it did before. It now meant death.

It meant hate. It meant all the things that I learned in school to be bad from slavery to Nazis to organized crime. It was a word that bad guys used, a word meant to hurt people. It was then that I realized the power of words.

But, as I grew older I came to realize that words like anything else only have the power that we give them, so I refused to give in to bitterness and anger. By this time in my life, I’d been called every name in the book, by people who loved me, people that once loved me, people who didn’t know me, and people who hated me. I’d been called names in languages I didn’t understand or in accents that dampened the meaning and vitriol behind them, and at some point, they lost their sting. I chose a different path – one of kindness and compassion. I discovered that by using my own words to spread love and empathy, I could help to break down the barriers that divide us and build a better world for all of us.

Let us use our words to uplift and inspire, rather than tear down and destroy. Let us choose love over hate, and compassion over indifference. It is only through these small acts of kindness that we can overcome the power of words and create lasting change in our world.