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Here are a few letters I've received re: Nigggerhead. 


From a white reader from  Haskell County, Texas:

I think that you are very wrong when you talk about Mrs.Yeldell saying -"A black woman in the county claims she was constantly addressed as "Nigger." Her quote was about the 1950's not current Haskell . As a matter of fact Mae Lou Yeldell was honored as Citizen of the Year in 2010 by the Haskell Chamber of Commerce. I think that problems arise when authors make broad statements about the residents of an area.

From another white reader from Haskell County, Texas:

Just read your comments on TheAtlantic.com. I grew up in Haskell County, Texas. When we pulled up in the yellow-dog bus at the Throckmorton football field for my first game in seventh grade, we were greeted with the words "Go home niggers" scrawled on the side of a metal tank, right in front of the bus's windshield. After the game, we stopped at a convenience store in town, and the two black kids on the team asked the white kids to get snacks for them because their grandparents and parents had told them not to get off the bus anywhere but at the football field. That was in the late 80's/early 90's. 

And nothing has changed, I can promise you. Don't let anybody tell you any different. Texas (and a lot of the rest of the country) haven't moved past a lot of this stuff. It makes me sad that the place where I grew up is getting attention for this, but I can't say it's not true. If anything, it's worse than they're making it out to be. If you're going to live in small town Texas, you'll fare best if you're a lily white Southern Baptist good ol' boy who loves guns, Reagan, and football. They'll tolerate the odd Methodist, but that seems to be about the extreme of what passes for tolerance out in Perry country.

The only place in Texas I've ever visited is Austin, and I'm not sure that qualifies. (Come on, I kid the hipsters.) I draw no conclusions about Haskell, specifically. I imagine it's always a little rough to see your name appear in the paper for something negative.

The thing about racism is it exists in the world with everything else. Plenty of racists are good people. And plenty of heinous  people aren't particularly racist. Racism has very little to do with your personal "goodness" or "generosity." 

To wit:

I grew up in rural Mississippi where the yellow flowers with the brown center grew and bloomed in early autumn along the roadsides and around the edges of overgrazed pastures. The flowers were called "niggerheads" because the center was brown and well, you know. It was in 1953-54 that we had a little league baseball team. 

There were only eight white boys in our rural community and one little black boy. His name was Willie Rogers Cotton. He was our first baseman and was probably the best player on our team. We played the only other team in the area, an all white team, and when someone made a racist comment, we took up for Willie Rogers. We played and camped out and Willie Rogers was always included. I am sorry that things changed for us. After the Brown vs Bd of Education, Willie Rogers family moved to Detroit or Chicago, or somewhere and we never saw him again.

I'm sure Willie was much heartened by the defense. I know I would have been. My only way to relate to this is to say that when I was kid the corner store was the "Chink Store"--whether the people running it were Asian-American, or not. Still I have a hard time imagining myself saying to  an Asian-American, "That's just what we called it. It didn't mean anything."

And on that note:

I rarely feel the need to do such things, but even though I believe Cain's chances of being the president are a long shot, I believe his ideas and business leadership skills are sound. When he joined in with Sharpton, I was very disappointed. I saw a couple of your articles and wonder if you are willing to comment on my statement. I have a diverse but limited exposure, and I want your honest opinion. Thank you, and if you do not reply, I understand you probably get hundreds ... who knows, thousands? ... of emails a week. 

I am a white male, 48 years old, grew up in Iowa and now live in Texas. I am not necessarily a supporter of anyone yet in the Republican primaries, but I do have respect for the solutions Mr. Cain brings to the table. I also have respect for Perry and some of the other candidates. It does not surprise me that someone like Al Sharpton attacks Perry for a name on the rock or the ranch the Perry's go to ... even though it was painted over. It does surprise me when Cain joins in. 

When I was young, we called Brazil nuts Nigger Toes. There was not one bit of racial content in that term in our family. Even though I learned about the racial tensions in the south and in our country's past, I really didn't think twice about the phrase ... not until I had black friends and realized the term had meaning. Unfortunately, it had two meanings. One was bad, and the other used by black people as a friendly term to exclude white people. 

Nonetheless, until I read the news today, I saw Herman Cain as a smart man who happens to be black, but taking the tone and opportunity of the likes of Sharpton or Jackson makes me feel sick to my stomach. I have seen Jesse Jackson make a racial issue out of nothing. I lived in Annapolis when the Denny's issue occurred, and I was a regular. Everyone received the same treatment. We knew where to sit so we could pour our own coffee. We knew which booth might get better service. I had returned a plate of hash browns and only requested they pour the excess grease off the plate and warm them on the grill for a second, realizing I may not see them for a half hour in a new pool of grease. 

Yet, Jesse was able to get national attention for a racial incident. Disgusting. I hate the thought of grouping Mr. Cain with people like these. If he really thinks this way, then he should start making his true feelings come through in his statements during the debates. This way, he can attract the followers in the Sharpton/Jackson circles and alienate the more intelligent individuals from all races.

I have always been allergic to Brazil nuts (seriously), and this note broke my heart. I wrote the guy back and told him I just couldn't help. I don't know how you explain to someone that "Nigger Toes" is offensive. It's above my paygrade. On some level, I feel like it's explaining basic manners. 

Moreover, I feel like some of this work should be done by the actual person. Should you feel so compelled to use such a term as nigger toes, it would seem that a basic curiosity should compel you to ask "Why are they called that?" Perhaps your search would lead you somewhere completely innocuous and utterly non-racist. But it would seem that a basic sense of decency might kick in. there, an awareness that says, "This offends you, I understand why and so I'll stop." I mean a faggot is also a piece of wood, but...

I don't think you can "talk out" this sort of thing. Dialogue is overrated. It's not the world's job to make you a more understanding person.  We give too much credit to conversation, and not enough to contemplation.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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