The Story Of “Nigger Jeff”

11-court-west-birmingham

Alan Jacobs tells it:

All I can say in my defense is that I never hurled a stone at him, or shouted abuse. But I stood by, many a time, as others did those things, and I neither walked away nor averted my eyes. I never held anyone’s cloak, but then I was never asked to. I watched it all, gripping a rock in my hand as though I were preparing to use it — so that no one would turn on me with anger or contempt — and I always stood a little behind them so they couldn’t see that I wasn’t throwing anything. I was smaller and younger than the rest of them, and they were smaller and younger than him. In my memory he seems almost a full-grown man; I suppose he was eleven or twelve.

We called him Nigger Jeff. I have never doubted that Jeff was indeed his name, though as I write this account I find myself asking, for the first time, how we could have known: I never heard any of the boys speak to him except in cries of hatred, and I never knew anyone else who knew him. It occurs to me now that, if his name was Jeff, there had to have been at least a brief moment of human contact and exchange — perhaps not even involving Jeff, perhaps one of the boys’ mothers talked to Jeff’s mother. But we grasp what’s available for support or stability. It’s bad to call a boy Nigger Jeff, but worse still to call him just Nigger. A name counts for something.

Continued here. Update from a reader:

I read the story about “Nigger Jeff” and it brought back a memory from almost 62 years ago.

I was raised in a small coal mining town in Southern Illinois.  My dad owned a grocery store that served everyone in town, the black population included.  We all, of course, knew each other anyway (how can you not know everyone when there are only 350 people in town?) and as a young child, I remember our black neighbors as well as our white ones.  One in particular was a woman of generous size who made the best barbeque in the world.  Every year, twice a year, like clockwork, the smell of barbecue roasting on her outdoor huge grill would permeate the town and everyone would run to her house to buy ribs, pork for sandwiches, etc.  I can still taste it and have found nothing to compare.

She shopped at my dad’s store and one January she came into the store when I was there.  I had gotten a black doll from Santa that year and I ran to her and said so proudly…”look at my nigger baby”.  She sat down in the one chair in my dad’s store, said “come here baby” and sat me on her ample lap.  I’m not sure what the words she used but she made it clear to my five-year-old brain that that word was just not acceptable. I still have trouble saying it (writing it is hard enough).

I suppose if more of us had those kinds of connections with people who are not like us and who were willing to educate a five-year-old little white girl about the harm that a word can cause, the world would be a better place …