The embassy threw a big Independence Day in San Jose, Costa Rica on July 4 for U.S. citizens and their guests. It was filled with patriotic music, information booths, carnival games, all you can eat hotdogs and bagels, and all you can drink beer, pepsi and water.
While browsing the veterans table a senior citizen caucasian male addressed me and asked where I was from. Without looking up I told him North Carolina. It’s a question I hear everyday, and I have been programmed to automatically spit out an answer. In his next breath he said, “Let me ask you a question, how do you feel about the word n****r.”
I was taken aback. This is definitely not a question you hear everyday, especially not at a celebration for “The Land of the Free” thats full of opportunities for “all”. My instinct was to tell this bigoted elder off, then storm away angrily. However, I decided I’d indulge his effort to represent “The home of the Brave,” composed myself and stammered out an answer.
“I personally don’t like the word and consider it offensive,” I said.
“But it depends on who uses it, right,” he responded.
I sighed and thought, oh no, we are about to get into this age old argument that happens everyday between leaders in Black America. I armed myself with words, and prepared myself for the upcoming battle.
“I don’t think it makes a difference. This was a word that was used to enslave and persecute my ancestors for decades, and I think it’s disrespectful for people to use it. I don’t care if they are my friends, or a stranger on the street,” I said.
Without missing a beat he responded, “Whether someone calls you a nigger, a spic, a chink, a cracker, or a wet back, they are all just words,” he said.
“I have seen a woman go from cleaning houses to living in the White House, and thats a beautiful thing. And I am in love with Michele Obama,” he added.
I decided I had misread this gentleman, who I later learned went by the name Sidney. He was just someone who liked to push envelopes, and overstep boundaries considered taboo. Yet at the same time, he was wise and gentle.
“Are you religious,” Sidney asked me.
“I was raised in the church, and still exercise my beliefs,” I told him.
“Are you African Methodist?” he inquired.
For the second time I was shocked. There are many African Americans that don’t know about the AME church. It’s was designed by free blacks of the North as the first denomination for my people in the U.S. because they were required to worship separately from the whites. The church protested racial discrimination and slavery. Yet here was Sidney, sharing in this knowledge.
Sidney went on to talk to me about politics, life and religion. “I’m a heathen, some might even call me a pagan,” he said. Despite his claim to be against Christianity, he continued to share insights from the bible, questioning Jesus’s origin and linking problems in society to the murder of Abel by the hand of his brother Cain. He went through American history, quoting from presidents of the past, and praising President Obama for his health care policy.
“Many presidents have tried to get a universal health care policy, and that man did it,” Sidney said pointing to a cardboard cutout of Obama. “But they criticize him because he’s an African born in Hawaii.”
Sydney intrigued me, and I had to know more about him. I asked how long had he been an expat.
“Far longer than most he said. I came here by row boat, I couldn’t afford anything else,” he joked.
“What do you do,” I asked.
“Mostly I sit and think. But when I get tired, I just sit. But I’m an American so I have to think,” he chuckled out.
Later, he eventually told me that he used to own a restaurant in Georgia. “Yall ain’t think I was from the South,” he joked. “I’m fixin to go get me some hushpuppies!”
By now Sydney had gathered a crowd, and we all laughed.
I concluded that I would never get a straight answer out of Sydney, he liked being vague and mysterious. But he was by far, the highlight of my day and an experience I felt I had to share.
I don’t feel like I need to preach to the world or nothing like that. I just feel like I share what I say, and if listeners get it, they get it. And I never underestimate the audience’s ability to feel me.