A couple of weeks ago Jackson asked about the nutcracker that sits on top of the mantel. I explained that it was a decorative one, not a real one. He asked if we could get a real one and I said yes. So I ordered a real nut cracker from the internets and bought a bag of assorted nuts for him to try his hand at and we had everything ready to go yesterday morning. So while Jackson was finishing up the dishes after breakfast, I grabbed a bowl and went back to the table with the nutcrackers in hand. Jerimiah was sitting there watching as I opened the bag of nuts and poured them in. They were the assorted kind with pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, and Brazilian nuts. The kind we both remembered from our childhoods back in the Midwest.
I pulled a walnut out first and cracked it open. Jerimiah said that was his favorite kind, so I used the pick to dig the rest out for him. Then came the almond, then the hazelnut. Then I pulled out the Brazilian nut and I stopped, my hand holding it up in the air when I had a memory blaze across my mind. Jerimiah had the exact same memory I had, even though we lived in two separate places, hundreds of miles away from each other. We looked at the nut, then at each other. We weren’t sure what to say, so Jerimiah spoke first.
“Talk about overt racism,” he said, and I nodded.
The memory that Jerimiah and I share from our separate childhoods is horrific. I’m full of shame just writing about it today, but certainly we are not the only ones who were forced to hear this as children and certainly we can’t shy away from the facts of this here country and the way white people are. The nickname passed down from generation to generation for this particular nut is a “N-word Toe.”
That’s how I knew the nut growing up and I had completely forgotten about that particular part of my childhood Christmases, then there it was, quite suddenly in front of me once again. Jerimiah told me his grandparents called it that. I told him my mother called it that, and so did all her friends. My mother was born in 1944. She was 13 years old before she saw anyone who was not white, only heard about people of color in terms not so polite. The N-word was used regularly during her childhood, on the tobacco farms my grandfather tended and in the rural schools she attended in Platte County, Missouri.
This was a normal way of life, but why this particular nut was nicknamed that I do not know. I refuse to know, actually. I refuse to Google it, give it any validation. I have suspicions of course, but we will leave them where they lie. All I know is a pit came up in my stomach when I saw that nut again after all these years and I didn’t know what to do. Neither did Jerimiah, so we did what we thought was right. We explained all of it to Jackson.
Jackson sat and listened intently, but when we shared the nickname his jaw dropped. I wasn’t sure how to take that. First I thought how good it is that he’s astounded to hear such nonsense, then I wondered if I am shielding him too much from the way structural racism, including covert and over racism, works. I wondered whether we need to do a deep dive into how just 20 years ago this was the way of the world, and explain in some parts of the country, in some small towns, in some homes, homes of family members we know and love, this is still the way of the world. I was at a crossroads and I guess I still am.
I’m not incredibly sure why I’m sharing this today. I could have kept this a secret. I think, however, that shameful secrets can bog you down. And I know, like with most of my writing, that I hope to evoke some kind of social change by sharing. But that’s at the macro level I suppose. Quite specifically, most days I feel a large responsibility toward others. Toward validating the lives of people who carry shame from their families and their childhoods and who are still working and learning to get things right, as well as toward the people who are oppressed and hurt by people like me. That’s a tall order, I know. But one I will keep plugging at for the rest of my life.