An Open Letter to Paula Deen

When news first broke of Paula Deen's indelicate turns of phrase, I ignored it.

C'mon. What American hasn't used the word nigger? We teach children the word each time Mark Twain's Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are assigned in class.

After the initial headlines, there came anecdotes so salacious that she was a no-show on The Today Show, where she'd been scheduled to give a mea culpa and get on with her life.

Through it all, my admiration never waned for her along with Martha Stewart and B. Smith, women who'd turned housework into home-making, built empires and given millions of women immense pride in the work they do for their families.

Then, I heard Ms. Deen speak of her great-grandfather's having gone into a barn and shot himself because the Civil War had been lost and "he didn't know how to deal with life with no one to help operate his plantation."

"There was 30-something people on his books and the next year's census it's like zero," she told a live audience. "He couldn't deal with those kinds of changes."

Never did she mention the price paid by Blacks, pre- and post-change, over centuries of enslavement and segregation. She did say that "Black folks were such an integral part of our lives; they were like family." She even called a Black male employee, Hollis Johnson, "black as a board" onstage. "We can't see you standing against that dark board," she joked.

To Matt Lauer on The Today Show, she offered her critics a self-serving monologue and a defiant "I is what I is, and I'm not changing!"

Hence, this open letter:

Dear Ms. Deen,

I know that you're in great pain at this time. Your world -- and everything you've worked for -- has been rocked. Much as it was for your great-grandfather, it must seem that life has brought "terrific changes."

I cannot, however, sympathize with the plight of your great-grandfathers who, for centuries, victimized mine. I will not mourn the "way of life" lost to those who joined the Ku Klux Klan, lynch mobs and "picnics" where white families spread blankets, shared baskets and "picked niggers" to dangle as "strange fruit" from their hanging-trees.

You are suffering because you refuse to understand that lives have been lost to the "I is what I is" mentality in which you take such pride.

Given a forum, you gave a diatribe. "Someone evil out there saw what I had worked for and they wanted it." Do you understand that millions of hard-working people only want to hear you say: "I said the things I said. I was wrong. I'm willing to learn and to grow?"

Given a lifeline, you chose a lie when you said the only time in 30 years you used the word nigger was when a Black man had you at gunpoint in a bank robbery. Playing to stereotypes instead of humility, you sought to justify bigotry.

Forget worrying that what some say about you isn't true; it's what you're saying about you that's causing outrage.

Do you know what it means to me, a dark-skinned person, to watch a man who looks like me publically humiliated for his skin tone?

His family had to see that. What were you thinking? Should you tolerate being "white as puss?" If you won't, should I sneer at you for being politically correct?

Your laugh-line was the work denied me for being "dark enough to offend." "Were you 5' 9" and blonde, I would've hired you in a minute," said one network news executive.

Your employee's humiliation was my first day of college. A white dorm mother had me stand for inspection -- as if on an auction block -- to give my assigned white roommate's parents the option of having me removed from "their daughter's room." My family paid the same tuition with no such option.

And, do you really think a wedding celebrating the heyday of plantation life is a good idea?

No, Ms. Deen, this isn't just about the N-word. It's about the picnics of your youth. It's about your lack of remorse -- or compassion -- today.

It's about your timing. You misused your platform for self-pity two days after George Zimmerman's defense attorney opened a murder trial in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, dark-skinned teen, with a knock-knock joke.

This is about what you're willing to do for yourself, for the millions of people who've believed in you and the thousands whose livelihoods depend on your "brand."

And, it's about your caring enough about them to use your pain to move others toward the healing our nation so desperately needs and rightly deserves.


Janus Adams