Brain Waves: ‘Negro’


Margaux Armfield | Staff Artist

To the boy in my 8 a.m.:

That day was the first time I felt comfortable enough to give my opinion in this class the entire semester. For a minute, I felt like more than a black body trespassing on private property, loitering in a classroom.

The class was discussing 1868, far from the context of the 1960s, but in that moment you made the two feel not that far apart. The class may be missing a whites-only sign, but the lack of another “negro” in the room made it apparent enough.

What you said blew fire into my ears, burned and bruised my mind. It only took two seconds for the words to come out of your mouth, but it took six days for them to find a home in the back of my mind.

I wondered why that muddied title was the first to cross your mind. It is as if you had a hat with all of the names we have been called, and fate led your hand to the one to make me the most uncomfortable in that moment. You had so many other options but still chose perfectly; thank you for never letting me forget that I’m the only black person in this class.

Negro feels like what happened in the civil rights movement doesn’t matter. It feels like all of the work that burdened the shoulders of my grandparents to get me in the same class as you, to receive an education, is insignificant.

Negro feels like you were almost there, so close to calling me a word used to demean and belittle, a word you probably never skip over in rap songs.

When the word left your mouth, your fingers formed air quotes and cheeks turned red. The eyes of the class focused in on my skin, each pair waiting for a reaction.

I didn’t have anything to say. The size of the microaggressions I experience daily weighed down my tongue. My teeth ground on their bitterness. My throat turned dry as it desperately tried to form words.  

I have always prided myself in being unapologetic, a voice for the voiceless. For the first time, I was the voiceless.  Maybe if I had said something in that moment, I would not have felt like a token.

All I could do was widen my eyes and turn my head to look at you, sitting right next to me. Your boldness shocked us all, maybe even yourself. You had the power to create the moment beforehand. You wrote the script and set the stage. So, it is funny how you could not turn your head look the only “negro” in the face.

We both can learn from what happened. You may not realize it, but I am not your negro. I am learning that I am not obligated to be the voice of reason in every room, a representative for every person of color. When we discuss slavery next week, I challenge you to look away from my skin that somehow qualifies me as an expert, and toward all the other minds who too are capable of speaking of subjugation.

Just in case you ever find yourself in a situation having to address the group of people displaced, enslaved and colonized, black works.


Nile Pierre 

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