The death of a dear friend last week reminded me of a small incident, a long time ago, that might shed some fresh light on the seemingly endless debate over racial respect and who can and can't use the word "nigger."
The friend was John Egerton, with whom I worked during the early 1970s at the now disbanded Race Relations Reporter in Nashville, Tenn. – a foundation-supported newsletter that covered the dramatic transformation that swept over the South after the passage of the civil rights laws and the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. In addition to being a superb journalist who went on to write acclaimed books on the emergence of the civil rights movement and the roots of the South's multifaceted culture and cuisine, Egerton was one of the most decent men I've ever known.
He also happened to have been white.
In any case, one of our other co-workers in the rambling house where the Reporter was headquartered was the custodian, a courtly black gentleman in his 60s who was known as "John." For the longest time I believed that was his name, since that's what everyone had called him for the decade or more he had worked in the building. He was unfailingly cheerful and courteous to the almost all-white staff of the newsletter, who in turn treated him affectionately.
It came as a shock when one of my two black co-workers informed me that "John" wasn't his name at all. He had been called that only because one of the white women who worked at the Reporter claimed to be unable to pronounce his real name and so had given him a nickname of her own choosing. And it just stuck.
When I quietly asked him about it, he said he had never liked being called John and would prefer to be called by the name his parents had given him, which was "Ewing Cole." But he didn't want to make an issue of it because he liked the people at the Reporter and didn't want to inconvenience them. That wasn't good enough for me and the two other black professionals on the staff.
We thought that calling the man John was dehumanizing and disrespectful, a hangover from the revolting practice among some Southern whites of calling grown black men "boys" and elderly black men and women "uncle" and "auntie." We weren't going to stand for it, so we took to addressing him as Mr. Cole out of respect for his age—and insisted that our co-workers do the same.
Most of our white colleagues, including Egerton, got it right away and began addressing him as Mr. Cole or, in some cases, Ewing. But some of them, including the woman who had dubbed him John in the first place, just couldn't kick the habit. She kept calling him John until she quit the job a few months later. And although I never thought she was a bad person, or that she meant any harm, I was glad when she left. She was just too immersed in the lazy stereotypes that white Southerners had developed to justify the indignities they imposed on black fellow Southerners to recognize the arrogance that underlay her behavior.
I'm convinced that she went to her grave without ever understanding what was wrong with calling him John.
And in that, her attitude had a lot in common with that of present-day white people who high-handedly insist that they are justified in using the word "nigger" because some black people also use it. They are, of course, dead wrong.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in a nuanced New York Times column the other day, "within the boundaries of community relationships, words – often ironic and self-deprecating – aare always spoken that take on other meanings when uttered by others." Which simply means that what we choose to call ourselves when we are communicating with one another has little to do with what we will allow those who are not in the group to call us.
The ability to name is one of the most potent powers in the human toolkit. And to be called out of one's name is among the gravest of insults. It's the reason civil rights activists insisted that black people be addressed as Mr. and Mrs., instead of simply by their first names, when they were called to testify in court. It is the reason we have so often updated our preferred name for the ethnic group we belong to – going from colored to Negro to black to African American over the decades – each shift signifying a change in our political and social relationship to the rest of the country. The rapid changes in self-definition are indicative of a people on the move.
And sometimes it comes down to a little thing, like being called what you want to be called, not what someone else chooses to call you. Ewing Cole understood that. So did John Egerton. They were both good men, and they're both gone now. Remember their names and cherish them.
(Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor at The Root.)