JENA and from the road, Louisiana — I woke up this morning thinking in the back of my mind, “There’s a good chance I’ll be called ’n—-r’ today.”
It’s come to this, huh? I was racking my brain last night, seriously thinking about the last time somebody had the audacity to call me “n—-r” to my face.
Ironically, I had just come from the Jena Six rally in Jena, Louisiana, where about 20,000 people, many of them black, showed love to each other (see “Thousands March On Louisiana Town To Support ’Jena Six’ “ ). “N—-r” wasn’t even a thought, except when considering the allegations that a white student used the slur on the Jena Six last year. But for somebody to lose his mind and call even one person in that sea of black people such a name was unfathomable.
So why, after such a peaceful and spiritual day of marching and protesting (Shout out to all the college kids I had dinner with last night, get up on your Biggie and early Wu-Tang!), would I be thinking somebody might call me “n—-r” less than 24 hours later? Well, the MTV News crew and I were going back to Jena today, but not with 20,000 of my people — it was just us.
The assignment was to talk to the locals and bring a clearer picture of what Jena was like when the protest was going on. “I want to taste the town,” a senior producer said a few days prior.
So I’mma be the best chef possible with these words. I may not be able to change your life with a stroke of pen, but this Blackberry keyboard is like my magic wand.
Back to “n—-r.” I woke up by no means afraid of being called “n—-r,” ’cause trust me, if somebody had (God forbid), me and Mychal Bell might have been bunkies. I was just preparing for the worst.
I can only remember two, well, three times in my whole life when I was called “n—-r.” The first, I was about 7 or 8 years old, and I was visiting my cousins Tuere, Shaunna and Shaunta in Bad News (a.k.a. Newport News), Virginia. We were playing with some of their neighbors who were white, and the youngest child, a baby girl who was about 5, said, “Hi n—-rs!” As easily and innocently as it flowed from her mouth, it felt like time stopped. We asked her what she said and she repeated it.
We all just picked up our toys and left calmly. How can you be upset with a 4- or 5-year-old child? I don’t even remember how the rest of the incident panned out.
The last time I was called “n—-r” was about 10 years ago. I was crossing the street and a car almost ran me down. I stopped to give him the “What the ’F’?!” look, but before I could say anything, he stopped his car, looked back and called me “n—-r.” Man, I lost it — I gave chase to the car like Mel Gibson in “Lethal Weapon.”
So this morning, I knew to get ready for anything, because you can’t really say in advance how you’re going to react if you’re called “n—-r.” It’s definitely a fighting word, though.
Thursday, on the way from Alexandria, Louisiana, to Jena — a 45-minute drive — what’s one of the first things I saw? A Confederate flag hanging from somebody’s house alongside I-65. Before we even got to the small highway leading directly into and out of Jena, we saw two more flags. Is this Hazzard County? What’s next, a man in an all-white suit?
We finally got to Jena and stopped at a gas station located in the “black” part of town, near Park Street.
While waiting outside, a car pulled up with a white man driving, and what was in the back window? Two baseball caps and a Confederate flag. This is real talk!
A few minutes later, I was casually talking to a man who said he was Mychal Bell’s uncle. He was optimistic about Mychal getting out of jail today, but was also talking about how he’s preparing to defend himself because the racists in town were getting out of hand. He told a story he had heard about two boys who were caught with nooses hanging from their trucks (see “Mychal Bell Of ’Jena Six’ Will Not Be Released Friday, Court Decides” ).
Later, two kids pulled up and told me and Sway how people were hanging nooses on trees all along LA8 before the protest. Some people had even carved “monkey” into a couple of the trees. “Oh yeah,” I’m thinking to myself. ” ’N—-r’ is on the tip of somebody’s tongue right now. If I hear it, I’m going to try to remain professional as possible, but there are gonna be problems.”
Later we actually ran into two of the Jena Six: Robert Bailey and Ryan Simmons. These guys look like kids — kid kids. Not kids that wild out like the ones on the last season of “The Wire,” but kids. Ryan was as quiet as a churchmouse and I could still see fear in his eyes when we brought up the case.
They couldn’t talk about it at all, but instead took us to Ward 10, their neighborhood in Yearby Hill.
It’s a very modest, quiet neighborhood where they love Lil Wayne and UGK and Kanye West. There are no clubs, no organized activities for kids except school sports (the high school football team is the biggest draw in town), and hardly any black-owned businesses (not even a barbershop) aside from a custom-detailing shop. They talk about the same things cats in larger, more populated areas talk about, like MTV News’ “Hottest MCs” show and the Sean Bell tragedy in New York.
“It ain’t right down here, as you can see,” said one of Bailey’s friends, who asked to remain anonymous. “All you have to do is open your eyes.”
Bailey’s older sister Rashaunda did talk on the record. The Jena she knows is not one where white people come up to you and readily call you “n—-r.” The Jena High she went to a few years ago didn’t have a “whites only” tree. (Some widely reported details about Jena and the Jena Six were questioned by an Associated Press report on Monday.) ) They had a tree that anybody could stand by or sit under — no matter what race — because, for heaven’s sake, it’s just a damn tree.
Even with everything going on with her brother and his friend, she said the real racial problems are not with the everyday civilians, but the courts and police.
“The justice system, the way black people get treated by the justice system …” she said. “We’re tired. We’re ready to fight.”
Judging how Mychal Bell is still incarcerated, the Jena Six will need to be ready to fight. They are in for a very long one. One march, even with 20,000-plus people, is obviously not going to be enough. The Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are going to have to actually come and meet with all the families instead of just holding press conferences at town hall. And Mos Def is right: The hip-hop community will need to step up and speak on it.
As a black man, I can honestly say that I definitely know what it feels like to have the police handcuffs on when you have done nothing illegal. Can many of my friends say the same? Of course. It’s sad, but it’s almost expected. You learn about it growing up, and when it happens to you — getting threatened, harassed and handcuffed for no reason — it stings no less. You’re angry and feel violated. But the fact is, most of us will never have anybody to march for us.
Although my stay in Jena was brief and my personal encounters with the locals minimum, I can honestly say that everybody — black and white — who I had personal conversations with treated me and my crew pretty well. Sway and I even signed some autographs for the locals, and I was very surprised at how many of the whites, young and old, took the side of the Jena Six. Maybe what Rashaunda Bailey was saying was true: The majority of her neighbors were not racist. That’s the thing about racism, though, most of it is covert. Why do you think the KKK don’t wear name tags?
As quickly as I relaxed after talking to the ladies at the local burger joint in Jena, a few minutes later it felt like a reality snuck up from behind me, swiped my New Era ball cap and smacked me across my brown, bald head as if to say, “Don’t forget what you are here for!”
Headed toward New Orleans in a totally different direction than how we came into town, what did we see? A plethora of Dixie flags hanging from houses, from store fronts on cars. Then all of sudden, me, Sway and our production manager Will Miller kept passing cotton fields. Some fields were mixed green and white, others were a sea of white. We were amazed, but at the same time me and Sway couldn’t help but think of some of our ancestors who had to be out in those working in all that heat. Thank goodness for Lil Wayne’s Drought 3 mixtape and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black CDs to even the mood. I’m definitely ready to get to N.O.
[This story was originally published at 8:17 p.m. ET on 09.21.2007]