The "N-word" Was the Last Word They Heard Before They Died

I thought I knew all about why it was wrong to use the n-word. Having taught and written about racism in America, I've read the words of those a scholar would read: David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Cornel West. But it was a football player who really touched me when he explained just what a black person feels when he hears that vile slur.

This month Cris Carter was inducted into the pro football Hall of Fame. He appeared last Thursday on ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike, and talked about his playing days and his upcoming book. Co-host Mike Greenberg then turned to another subject. A few days before the Hall of Fame inducted Carter, a visibly angry Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver named Riley Cooper was caught on tape using the aforementioned slur. He announced that he would "fight every n-----" at a Kenny Chesney concert.

The Eagles fined and suspended Cooper, sending him to counseling for four days and then allowing him to return to practice. The team's best player, running back LeSean McCoy, said that he forgives Cooper, but noted his pain as well over "losing a friend... I can't respect a guy like that."

Back to the radio interview, where Greenberg asked Carter for his perspective on what Cooper had said and how he might feel having Cooper as a teammate. Carter talked about how difficult forgiveness would be. He doubted that Cooper really understood "the magnitude of that word... how harmful it can be." Carter then laid it out for Cooper, and for anyone listening.

"He does not know," Carter said of Cooper, "how many people in my race that that was the last word they heard before they died." Those words came out of my car radio speakers and took my breath away. I'm lucky no other driver picked that moment to stop short in front of me.

Listening to those words again just now, I hear the depth of emotion behind them. I also hear something I didn't pick up when I first heard Carter's voice: seven thumps -- which can only be him pounding his hand on a hard surface -- emphasizing each of the seven words that ended his comment: Last. Word. They. Heard. Before. They. Died.

I had long known it was a word that slaveowners had used, that Klansmen had used, that whites (and not a few non-whites) have aimed at black Americans in every region of our country right up to the present day. Cris Carter was the one who truly humanized the experience for me (others, including Oprah Winfrey just this month, have expressed similar sentiments). I thought about a man hearing that word ringing in his ears as he hung from a tree, struggling to draw his last breath, or a woman hearing it just before she was whipped into unconsciousness. I envisioned African Americans seeing those images when they heard that word.

Carter didn't provide a number, but almost 3,500 black Americans were lynched in the years after 1882 (no reliable statistics exist before that year). How many tens of thousands of others were murdered by one method or another in the name of white supremacy? How many countless others were tortured or beaten? Historians can only guess.

We have made tremendous progress as a society when it comes to racism. However, we have by no means conquered it. It would be a great thing if no one ever used that word to slur a black person again, if the use of all hateful slurs simply ceased. Such developments, however, would not end the discrimination black Americans face today, or undo the legacy of the even harsher discrimination of the past. Such developments wouldn't educate any children, lift any families out of poverty, or eliminate racial disparities in drug sentencing. But they would mean a great deal.

My hope is that all the people who heard Cris Carter felt what I felt. My hope is that hearing directly from someone about the pain and hurt racism doles out leads great numbers of people to not just avoid the worst of racial slurs, but to take active steps to bring about greater justice.