Sheila Harris has a dream that the "n-word" will never be used again.
“That’s all I hear coming out of kids these days—and I can’t stand it,” said Harris, a Rockland County resident who grew up in White Plains.
So, she decided to put her dream into motion. Harris is inviting all to join her at the "I Have A Dream: Unity in the Community Walk," on Sunday, Jan. 15 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the in White Plains to honor King’s actual birthday.
Enjoy a light snack; listen to King’s “I Have A Dream” speech; march from the Slater Center down Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. to the Renaissance Plaza fountain—and be a part of making the dream a reality.
“He fought not only for equal rights for everybody, but also fought for people to know that it is not a word you use to say 'hi' to your friend,” said Harris, who volunteers at in Port Chester.
“If you talk to somebody you call them by name, not something derogatory. I just want to impress that this word doesn’t mean what they think it means—it doesn’t mean my friend, my buddy, my pal.”
A History of the "N-Word"
So, what does it actually mean? Here’s a history:
- According to an excerpt of “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” by Randall Kennedy, in The Washington Post, “"nigger' is a key word in the lexicon of race relations and thus an important term in American politics. To be ignorant of its meanings and effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one's life.”
- Kennedy says it has a history in America, and other parts of the world—and didn’t start out as a bad word. According to Kennedy, the "n-word" is derived from the Latin word for the color black, niger. Wiktionary defines niger as “To make black white.”
- When John Rolfe recorded in his journal the first shipment of Africans to Virginia in 1619, he listed them as "negars."
- According to “Spanish and Portuguese Influences on Racial Slavery in British North America, 1492-1619,” by James H. Sweet, Florida International University—the English, Dutch and French used variations of the Spanish word “negro” to refer to slaves or an enslaveable status.
- “The only reasonable explanation for the adoption of the word ‘Negro’ is that it conveyed a concept or a meaning that was absent from the languages of northern Europe,” writes Sweet. “In short, there was not another word in these languages that could capture both. In this way, ‘Negroes’ were represented as the familiar ‘other’s’ ‘other.’” Sweet says that the early slave communities in Brazil used the word “Negro” was used to include any slave, whether Native American or African.
- Sweet writes that Iberians crafted a "well-articulated language of racial inferiority and applied it to non-Christians and non-whites."
Use Your Words Wisely
Harris, who says the word has also been used by some to describe someone as ignorant, says the "n-word” should never be uttered, and that people need to be properly educated on the roots of the word.
“Next time you use that word you should know here it came from. If I can just get the next kid who opens his mouth to think first,” said Harris. “If I can get one kid to feel that, then I’ve done the job.”
That job started around the holidays when Harris got the idea to hold a march. She then got Kathryn Burns of H.O.P.E. House in Port Chester to assist with making connections to bring the whole community together for the event.
H.O.P.E. House is a program of the non-for-profit organization Human Development Services of Westchester in Mamaroneck (HDSW), which assists people recovering from mental illness to focus on achieving their goals and dreams.
She hopes youth see the impact of the march, and believe in its message so that they can give up using that word and influence others to do the same, so they won’t think its OK to use that word in a negative context.
“I wanted to do it in my neighborhood where I grew up,” said Harris. Harris hopes the march will inspire others to make positive impacts in their own neighborhoods.
Unity in the Community
Harris named the march the “Unity in the Community Walk,” and started getting everyone on board:
Rev. Hillaro Albert of St. Peters Church of Port Chester, Rev. Bruce Baker of All Souls Parish of Port Chester, Rev. Erwin Trollinger of , Bruce Freyer of will be in attendance and recite prayers.
Other who have contributed to the event include:
Jack Zaccara from One World United & Virtuous, Frank Williams of the , Dunkin’ Donuts at 30 Boston Post Rd. and 295 Midland Ave., the Port Chester and White Plains chapters of NAACP, Port Chester-Rye Brook Rotary Club, the Mental Health Association of Westchester and H.O.P.E. House Port Chester.
The got the permits from the and and will be holding the reception. Heather Mills of the Slater Center said events like this and the nineteenth annual Thomas H. Slater Center Unity Breakfast on Monday.
The Westchester County and White Plains public safety will be in attendance making sure that marchers safely navigate the crosswalks, including Westchester County Police's Captain Mark Busche and Lt. James R. Tiedemann.
All who believe in Harris and King’s dream are welcome to attend. Be sure to dress warm, it may be chilly, but no rain or snow—even so, Harris said that King probably marched through the rain.
“If Dr. Martin Luther said ‘I can’t,’ you’d still be on the back of that bus,” if he couldn’t do it,” said Harris. “You are where you are because of him.”
Harris plans to make history on Sunday—a day that her dream and Dr. King’s dream, to free the world of racism and persecution, will come alive and never be forgotten. In the words of Dr. King, “...free at last.”
Sheila’s Others Dreams
Harris hopes the march will become an annual event where more and more people are brought to awareness of the impact of this word. Next on Harris' dream list: to create a place victims of child abuse can interact with abused farm animals in a therapeutic setting.