The Real Nigger
Justin Wilmore was nine years old. Everyone said that he was the smartest kid they had ever seen, but he was not happy. All around him was poverty and disease, unemployment and despair. Justin lived on Asbury Street in Trenton, NJ. South Trenton, the “Bottom” as it was called. Even in his young mind, Justin knew he had nowhere to go but up. His father used Heroin daily and tried to hold down a job, when he wasn’t in jail. His mother drank cheap wine all day long and never quite managed to cook or clean on a regular basis, and it seemed to Justin that everyone around him was in the same shape (if not worse).
One thing that bothered him more than anything else was the word “nigger”. He seemed to hear it constantly, “nigger” this and “nigger” that, and always, “nigger’s ain’t shit!” He heard it from the music the kids blasted outside; he heard it walking to school everyday. Justin knew, even at the tender age of nine years old, that above all else he hated “niggers” and he vowed that he would never be one. Even though he was as dark as any of the people in his neighborhood (and niggers were supposed to be black, right?) he never thought of himself as a “nigger”.
The reason he hated “niggers” so much was because the people who constantly called each other niggers were always on the TV, and in the papers fighting and causing trouble. They were always poor and stupid-acting, and he wanted no parts of that. Justin knew that one day he would be far away from these “niggers” and then he would be a fine and happy person.
To Justin the only good thing about his young life were his books and his teacher, Ms. Hall. His books were the vehicles for his escape. They took him to places far away from South Trenton. Magical worlds where there were no “niggers”, no dope, or wine, or fathers in jail. He read constantly with the addictive pattern that he inherited from his parents, but the books were more then just his tools for escape. Like his father’s heroin, and his mother’s wine, his books were his hope. They validated his withdrawal from the rest of the world. Unlike his parents though, the books he read pushed him to move forward.
His teacher, Ms. Hall, pushed him also. She saw that Justin was different from the other children and she took special care with him. Ms. Hall believed that Justin was unique, like a four-leafed clover or a puppy with six toes. She could never understand that all of her children could show promise with the right amount of love and patience. She didn’t have time for that. Justin had showed promise right from the start, and that’s whom she concentrated on. He, in turn, loved the attention she showered on him and he eagerly learned everything she taught him. Justin loved Ms. Hall. She was young, blonde, and very white. He just knew that no one ever called her a “nigger.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
When Justin was 12 years old he was given the chance at a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school in Lawrenceville, NJ. Geographically the school was only 10 or 12 miles away from where he lived, but socially and economically light years away from the “Bottom” and its denizens.
Justin and four other “underprivileged” teens had to take a three-hour test to see if they qualified for admission.
The week before the exam, Justin was filled with excitement. He knew he would pass the test and he couldn’t wait to be away from all the fighting and helplessness of his parents. He also knew that if he got away, he would never, ever return! His worst nightmares revolved around the idea that he might never escape from South Trenton. He believed that his whole life had been lived in preparation for this chance. Justin felt that the more money, property, and prestige he could put between himself and “those niggers,” the better off he would be. And it started with getting into this school.
There is nothing wrong with people trying to better themselves in life, but for Justin this was much more then that. He hated black people. He thought they were all “niggers.” Even though he himself was as dark as anyone else, the condition of his parents and neighbors made him believe that despair came in colors. So his drive to “get out” was fueled by his hatred of black skin. He thought that the farther he got away from black (and the closer he got to white), the better off he would be. Everything that he saw on the outside seemed to reinforce his distorted sense of self. It never occurred to him that he could make a change in his own surroundings by learning all he could and helping his people. The thought never entered his mind. He was obsessed with getting out and staying out!
The day of the test came and Justin found out that not only had he passed the test, but he had also scored higher than anyone else in the history of the school! He was given a full scholarship all the way through! All he had to do was maintain a B+ average through his first two years and they would pay for that and the next four years of high school. Justin was ecstatic! In the following weeks everything seemed to be going his way. He was given an award by the Mayor, a letter of recognition by the Governor, and several churches in the area had started a fund to help pay for clothing and other expenses. Everyone, it seemed, was proud of the little genius from the poor side of town.
For his part, Justin spent the summer days before his first year at the new school, in the library reading everything he could on etiquette and manners. He would lie awake in his bed each night reading aloud, honing his diction and pronunciation. He knew that to attain his goal of leaving this black world behind, his manner and his speech had to be perfect. When September came, Justin was ready!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In Lawrenceville, Justin didn’t just fit in; he was the epitome of the prep school student. From the outset he was more then anyone had bargained for. With his preppy clothes, manners, perfect speech, and excellent grades, he belonged. Everyone loved him! Everyone, that is, except the black staff and the few other black students who were there. Justin never spoke to them or even acknowledged their presence. He was much too busy studying and trying to assimilate, to be concerned with how they felt. He never heard the word “nigger” anymore, and the gap between him and his past was growing wider with each passing day. He never realized that by hating the black people around him, he actually hated himself. And that by trying to deny his true black self, trying to become more “white,” he was demonstrating this self-hate. Other black people could see it, but he couldn’t. If he had read Malcolm X he would have learned that, “You can’t hate the root and not hate the fruit.” But Justin did not read any black authors unless it was assigned (and very few were). So he slowly became what he wanted to become: A white man with black skin.
When summertime came Justin found odd jobs around the school, or took vacations with his new found friends at their summer homes on “The Cape” or Martha’s Vineyard. He never went back home to see his parents. He believed that if he ever returned to South Trenton, somehow the “niggers” would keep him there and he would lose all that he had accomplished.
Justin was never the athletic type, but he had joined the golf team because only the elite kids at school played. He also joined the chess team, computer club, the Classical Music Society, and the young Republicans Club. By the time he was a senior Justin was elected Class President. He had arrived!
There had been no incidents with anyone the whole time he was at school, until one day towards the end of his last year. He was coming out of his Chemistry lab, lost in thoughts of which college he would attend in the fall, when he walked right into another student.
“Oops, I’m terribly sorry,” said Justin. “Excuse me.”
It was one of the other black students, a kid from Brooklyn, New York also on a scholarship. Justin knew his name was Naim. “I’m sorry brother, I wasn’t looking where I was going,” Naim smiled.
Instantly Justin frowned. “I beg your pardon; I’m not your brother. You don’t know my parents, and you don’t know me!”
“Yeah, I know you,” Naim kept smiling. “You’re Justin Wilmore, Senior Class President and certified wanna-be. I called you brother because I know where I come from, even if you forgot”.
Justin let out a sigh of disgust, rolled his eyes and started to walk away. Naim grabbed Justin and pulled him back. Justin was startled; he jerked his arm away from Naim and said, “Now see here young man. There’s no need for…”
Naim cut him off, “I love you more than you love yourself. Wake up black man, if they start killing black folks tomorrow you’ll go too.”
The smile never left Naim’s face and his eyes never left Justin’s. He turned and walked down the hall. Justin just stood there watching Naim’s back. He had a strange feeling in his stomach. What did he mean by that? Justin wondered. No black man had ever said that to him before. He was puzzled. He shook his head, and turned to walk away. Boy, he thought, you can never figure those niggers out.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Justin entered Princeton University in the fall and loved it right from the start. He seemed to fit in so well. He started dating, white only of course, and he never spoke to, nor attended any events for the minority students.
For the most part, Justin was very happy in his new life, but from time to time he was plagued with massive pangs of guilt. He never visited his parents or the people in Trenton who had helped him when he entered Lawrenceville Prep. He had even told his friends that his parents were dead (which to him they might as well be). This would sometimes keep him awake long hours into the night. To rid himself of this feeling, he would lie and say that he would one day return and help his parents out of their poor condition. He never understood that the easiest lie to tell was the one you told yourself.
Justin graduated in the top third of his class and netted a job with Exxon Oil in Texas. They were giving him a six-figure salary, company car, and a furnished townhouse to start. Now, a young man on the way up, Justin was finally realizing his dream. There was probably not a happier person on the face of the earth!
When Justin arrived in Texas, his supervisor from Exxon met him at the airport. He was given his new company car, keys to his townhouse, and a map of Texas. He was told that he had a 200-mile drive to the Field Office in a place called Arnett. That was where he would be working and living. Justin was a little upset that he had to drive himself, but he didn’t want to make waves with his new employers so, he just kept his mouth shut. He would have really been upset if he knew that the other newly hired white executives had chauffeured limos.
Four hours later, at about 11:00pm, Justin was hopelessly lost. All of the roads looked the same: long, empty, and dark. So, when he saw a neon sign flashing brightly through the darkness, he pulled into the gravel parking lot of a place called “Buddy’s.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
William Earl Hancock, whom everyone naturally called Billy Earl, and his cousin Sylvester Smith, a.k.a. Sly, were the only two “good old boys” sipping beers when Justin pulled into the parking lot. Billy Earl had just been released from the county jail for non-support and cousin Sly was treating him to a few beers. They had been drinking for about two hours and they were drunk and mean. Billy Earl was telling his cousin Sly, and bartender/owner Buddy, that the County Jail was overrun with niggers and that the country should go back to segregated jails to solve the problem. He said that no self-respecting white man should be forced to do time with niggers, because they were all stupid and crazy. Sly and Buddy agreed. Billy Earl was no mental giant but, compared to Sly and Buddy, he was a genius.
These were men whose lives had been shaped by years of conditioning. They believed that all of their personal problems, along with the problems of the “Good ol’ USA,” were directly tied, someway, to the growing black population (who they only knew as “the niggers”).
This was the time and place into which Justin would come face to face with the ugly, brutal, reality of American racism. All of his life Justin had painstakingly avoided being identified with other African Americans. He never accepted the fact that, in the US, color was everything. No matter how one felt inside, or acted outside, people saw color first. They dealt with you on that surface (color) level until they came to grips with their own feelings. So, when he walked in the bar, Justin had no idea that he was about to learn the most important lesson of his life.
The men stopped talking and just stared with malevolent eyes, as Justin casually strolled up to the bar.
“Hi guy’s,” he smiled. “Could you please tell me how to get to Arnette? I seem to be lost.”
The three men exchanged glances and said nothing. Justin kept his smile, and even when he saw the “White Power” tattoo on Billy Earl’s giant bicep he still stood there grinning, expecting to be helped.
Buddy figured that since this was his bar, he should say something. “No shit you lost boy, and you better git yo’ black ass back out dat door if you know what’s good for you!”
Justin was taken aback for a split second. This type of behavior was totally new to him and he wasn’t prepared to accept the fact that anyone was treating him different because of the color of his skin. He stood his ground, “I beg your pardon. I’m lost and I need help.”
Billy Earl stood up and eased to the side of Justin. “Nigger git!” he yelled in Justin’s ear.
Justin was startled and stumbled backwards a step. “Look at dis damn fool,” Sly said and jumped up just in time to slap Justin hard on the side of his face. The man, who loved white people more than he loved himself, fell over a small table behind him. Immediately Billy Earl was on him, stomping and kicking.
“Hey, git him outta here!” yelled Buddy.
Justin was dazed and bleeding. His mouth had literally been kicked in, and he was choking on his own blood and teeth. Weakly, he yelled out, “But I just wanted some directions,” before he was kicked in the stomach and dragged from behind out into the parking lot.
“Hey Buddy, bring me some rope, this nigger wants some direction. We gon’ give him some!” The men were laughing now. Their hatred was fueled by the helplessness of their victim.
“Sly, check dis boy’s pockets. He looks like a nigger wit some money, and git the keys to that new car over there.” Sly Smith rolled Justin over onto his stomach and sat on his head, forcing his face into the hard gravel. Justin never lost consciousness even though he couldn’t breathe and the sharp stones cut into his face and eyes. He still could not understand why these men wanted to harm him; after all he was Justin Wilmore, Princeton, Class of ’95.
Buddy had turned off the lights of the bar and was locking the door. With a thick rope coiled around his shoulder, he hollered, “Whoa wee! We gon’ have some fun.”
They tied Justin up and threw him into the back of Billy Earl’s pickup. Sly jumped into Justin’s car and followed the pickup as it fish tailed out of the lot.
Justin was bounced around the hard, dirty bed of the pickup truck and after awhile he was vaguely aware of being on a dirt road when the truck came to an abrupt stop. He heard the doors slam and the men laughing wildly as they came around to the back of the truck. Thru the confusion, the pain, the terror, he remained conscious. They pulled him out and dropped him on the ground. Flashlights shone in his eyes. “Hey, old fancy nigger. We got yo’ ass now boy!”
“Why? What have I done?” Justin moaned weakly thru his swollen lips and broken teeth.
“You hear dat Sly? He wanna know what he done. Ain’t dat sumpin’!” The men roared with laughter and Justin could hear the slosh of liquid as the men passed their whiskey around.
“What you done was be born a nigger and be dumb enough to walk into Buddy’s askin’ fo’ some die-rection!” The men laughed again. “Don’t you know niggers is ‘sponsible fo’ all ‘da trouble in this world.”
“Yea, and one less won’t hurt nobody!” Justin didn’t know but Billy Earl made this last statement as he went to the back of the truck to fetch a can of gasoline he had in case of an emergency. He still believed that he could reason with these men. All people could be reasoned with he thought.
“Listen, I’m not a nigger.” He said. This seemed to make the men laugh even harder. “Well you da blackest white man I ever seen.” Buddy said.
“What I mean is I’m not like the rest of them,” yelled Justin. “My whole life has been different than theirs. I’ve been working real hard at not being like those niggers that you hate so much!” Justin was crying now, “Please let me go. I’m not a nigger.”
“Well, I guess you ain’t worked hard enough boy ‘cause you still just a nigger to us.”
“Wake up boy! You was born a nigger an’ you gone die a nigger. You can’t change dat!” Sly was mad when he screamed this in Justin’s upturned face. He couldn’t understand what this fool black man was talking about. He wasn’t a nigger? Why, he was crazy! A nigger was black, right? Oh yeah, he had heard that bull about nigger being an ignorant person. But every white man knew that when you said nigger you meant black. And that was the plain and simple truth. Nigger was an American word. “We made it just for them,” he thought. That’s why he was ready to kill. A nigger was just too damn stupid to live. He kicked Justin as hard as he could. The kick caught Justin right above the navel and the steel-toed work boots Sly wore lifted him off the ground and took his breath away. His body flew backwards and his head banged on the tailgate of the pickup. The pain was too much and Justin felt blackness start to wash over him. Before he could pass out, Billy Earl was dumping gasoline all over his head.
“Watch ‘dis y’all,” he said as he emptied the contents of the gas can. The cold liquid and the smell of gas made Justin wide-awake. Thru burning eyes and choking lungs, Justin pleaded for his life, “Gentlemen please! In the name of God, don’t do this to me! I beg you!!”
“Stand back y’all,” Billy Earl shouted as he dropped two lit matches onto the top of Justin’s soaking head. All three jumped back as the gas went up with a whoosh. Justin screamed as he was engulfed in flames. Incredible as it seems Justin stood straight up; ropes, fire and all. This scared the hell out of the three murderers and they almost turned and ran, until Justin fell to his knees. He let out a loud, deep blood-curdling moan. It was as though all the pain and confusion he had ever felt was in that last sound, and it was something that would haunt the three white men for a long, long time.
“C’mon y’all.” Buddy said and the three men climbed into the pickup truck and drove off into the night.