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C. Lynn McCullough's Autobiography (submitted 5/19/06)
Hand-selected to be one of five African-American teachers at the largest high school in the second-most racist section of Kanawha County, West Virginia, I stood prepared, or so I thought, for the challenge. We'd explore literature, polishing our mechanics to utilize a language of self-expression while coming to know ourselves better, or so I'd hoped. Our textbooks' multicultural slant would afford students a chance to experience vicariously the larger world beyond the mountains which surrounded them and, in some cases, held them captive to old fears and prejudices, outmoded beliefs handed down through the ages, unfounded in truth.
My high hopes crashed abruptly one day as my juniors opened those books in class. Something therein caused small chatter. Curious, I asked, "What's wrong?" A girl quickly replied, "Nothing." The boy beside her protectively, almost apologetically, said, "You don't want to know." It turned out someone had decided to re-caption the colorful illustrations accompanying the stories about African-Americans with the dreaded "N-word." That's what tactful people call it nowadays. What stunned me more, though, was that the word was misspelled. The perpetrator left out one of the g's, so the caption actually read, "N-I-G-E-R" ...
Niger, as in river, or country. Poor kid didn't even know the difference.
I couldn't speak. I almost couldn't process the bizarre irony. It was then the cusp of the seventies. Although we'd "come a long way, baby," we still had not overcome other people's ignorance. Racism is ignorance in its most malevolent form. It creates monsters unable to learn life's lessons from each other, incapable of seeing the humanity within.
More than literature or spelling, or even geography, we needed TRUTH to move beyond hateful words towards healing acts, building bridges to understanding, acceptance, and love.
Know what? We still do.