Vocab Lessons

“Ya’amee?” is a question that asks if I understand. “Ah-ight den” dismisses me, says everything is okay and I may now walk away or otherwise drop the subject. When Akeem’s pencil goes missing, Jermaine insists he hasn’t seent it. When I tell Akeem he must purchase another pencil from me, I’m told that I am “corny for dat.” At least at this juncture I’m not drawlin or, worse, straight-trippin’. Ya’amee?

In class I say “drama” and our communication breaks down: for my students drama is trouble, something to be avoided at all costs. “Drama” to them is more than a word that rhymes with “mama,” while “mama” to me implies a baby but “baby” to them might mean “lover” or “honey” just as I might call my wife “darling” or “sweetheart.” In Jermaine’s world, baby mama drama is a curse of the worst kind to befall a 15 year old boy, but “curse” to him is “cuss” while in my world “baby mama drama” seems nothing less than a play about the plight of a mother and her child. Ah-ight?

Now, on some real stuff. Three years of teaching Language Arts at inner city East High has taught me that vocabulary lessons are reciprocal. “Words are powerful,” I tell my kids and as an example, I point to the distinction between biography and biology. I can tell it’s meaningless to them, though. As I try to describe biology, they digress to tell me how some niggas is light-skinded and others is dark skinded. Matterafack, if you aks anyone, dey’ll say dey’s even a third category: “African,” or, as I might say, someone who’s black skin is particularly dark and whose features more decidedly reflect their African heritage. I still have some learning to do before I can spot the distinctions that make an African American more “African” and not just “black.”

In my classroom there are two boys named Will. Somehow I no longer have any compunction about referring to the light-skinded boy as “Will” and the other as “African Will,” which is what all the kids and some teachers—even those who are black—call him. Will is from the projects. African Will moved here from Jamaica. He’s never been to Africa, he says. He knows he’s dark-skinded. “That’s why I’m African Will,” he says.

What continues to surprise me is the incongruous sense of belonging I feel at hearing the most frequent usage of that once abominable word, “nigga.” Herein, I’ve decided, is the root of fruitlessness for those who so nobly try to maintain the word’s controversy: The children have stolen what my generation softshoes as the “n-word.” The next generation owns it now. Through daily usage they have bifurcated it, made of it a two-headed hydra in which the common head (“nigga”) has been rendered powerless. Ubiquitous and quotidian, it is as meaningless as “hello.” Or “biology.” Meanwhile, the rarer, still poisonous head, “nigger,” is vampiric at best—ever a threat but impotent in the light of day. Proof? Damiekio walks by on the first day of school, his younger brother a step behind. Damiekio stops at my door where I watch the halls for fights and prod the throngs in the quixotic hope of getting them to class on time. “Mr. Hayes,” Damiekio says. His hand is out, fingers perpendicular to the floor, pointed at me thumb up. I know better than to grasp it in a firm handshake. Instead, my hand mimics his. We slap palms, slide fingers back toward ourselves, curl them so they lock. “What’s good?” I ask. “Chillin’, chillin’,” Damiekio replies smoothly. “Mr. Hayes, dis my brother Jamario. Jamario—hey, hey! Jamario!” It is loud in the hallways. Damiekio points at me. “That’s my nigga right dair, Mista Hayezzz!” He draws it out, (not “drawlin’’—that’s something else entirely) suddenly more urban in the midst of his peers. Jamario just nods and sidles past.

Later, across town and a whole world away, I grin as I tell my 80-something grandparents about my job as a teacher at the school they attended sixty years ago. And just at that moment, I realize that my grandparents are now a touchstone of my success. Like Janus, the Roman god of thresholds with two faces peering simultaneously forward and backward through time, Grandma and Grandpa peer at me and laugh a nervous laugh at a future they’ll never see nor comprehend, all the while shaking their heads at their former Boy Scout who once ran crying into their arms when a group of older kids knocked him down and called him a “nigger lover” for playing “Marco Polo” in the pool with some kids from out of town. We all three remember how I couldn’t even say the word when it came time to confess my weakness.

“Yeah,” I tell them and sigh, beaming the satisfied grin of one who realizes he belongs. “I’m Damiekio’s nigga,” I say. My grandmother clucks good-naturedly and my grandfather drains his beer to hide his apprehension. They worry about my commerce in two worlds, one they understand less and less, another filled with so many niggas. But I have no fears. The word is powerless now, I remind myself. As useless as “biography.”