On the street where I grew up, in the early 70’s, there was a young man named Nigger Brown. He was my friend.
His parents had given him the first name Nigger, over the strong objections of a shocked and, his mother liked to say, offended young nurse in the prison hospital where he was born.
It was just his name.
They named him Nigger for a reason that they never told him.
It was just his name.
His father was serving a life sentence for murder and he was conceived in the conjugal room of the state penitentiary, so perhaps it was some kind of statement or a protest that missed the mark.
His mother was arrested for selling knock-off Cartier watches in Times Square while she was 6 months pregnant and gave birth to little Nigger behind bars. So maybe his parents wanted him to grow up hard.
He was conceived in one prison and took his first breath in another. So if that was the case, and they had wanted him to grow up hard, then it surely worked because Nigger Brown grew up hard.
People who knew him either called him by his full name, “Niggerbrown!” just like it was one word.
Or if you knew him well, you called him Big Nig, Sweet Nig or just plain old Nig.
“What up Big Nig?”
And in that deep booming baritone he would answer, “Sup?”
But anyone of any official capacity, social workers, teachers, his campaign staff, they just referred to him as Mister. They called him Mister Brown. As if Mister was his first name.
Some well-meaning low-level government employee along the way, in a state of panic, entered the letter N then an asterisk in place of his first name. So that was what it said on most of his official documents. Except for his Birth Certificate and his Social Security Card which both read Nigger Brown, all of his official paperwork read N* Brown.
And no one, not anyone, ever called him by his full first name alone, Nigger. It never happened. Not because he minded it or anything. It was just his name. A name that got him into trouble time and again, but just a name. A name that was more than a conversation starter, halter, ender, but just a name. It’s just that nobody ever used it in that way. Out of respect, maybe, or fear, I suppose. But he had told me one day that he didn’t mind it, being called Nigger. He only hated to be called boy. He did not like that at all.
“My name is Nigger Brown.”
When he introduced himself to people, he would call himself Nig since everybody else called him that. And on work applications he would write Nig but it would always end the same.
“Does this say Nig?”
“N – I – G?”
“You mean like as in,” then in a hushed tone. “- nigger?”
“Exactly like that.”
“And you’re going to tell me that’s your real name?”
“Yes it is. It’s my real name.” Opening his wallet. “And this is my Social Security card. I just want a job man.”
“Well… I will…” standing up, “keep your résumé on file and um…” showing Nig the door, “we’ll call you if something becomes available.”
His father was choked to death by a prison guard before Nigger had started school. He was awarded a huge settlement from the state that he couldn’t touch until he turned 18.
A week after his 18th birthday his mother overdosed on cocaine & diet pills leaving him alone with all that money. People had suggested to Nigger after she died that he have his name changed to something less shocking, less offensive but in his parent’s honor he refused.
Nigger is stubborn.
Nigger turned fifty-five early this year and still…
– Nigger has never held a steady job.
– Nigger always thought the odds were stacked against him or that the world was out to do him wrong.
– So Nigger had a bad attitude.
– Nigger never had a real relationship but I don’t think he really wanted one.
– Nigger never learned to trust anyone.
– And Nigger never took shit from anyone.
– But after the lessons of his parents’ deaths, Nigger never broke the law
– And Nigger never took drugs in his life.
– However for some, and some would say obvious, reason Nigger was always being harassed by the police.
– So Nigger had his lawyer on speed dial.
– Still Nigger always had some grand scheme, some big plan that he was working on even though he never followed through.
– Nigger always gave up too easy.
But Nigger was not lazy. He volunteered. He helped out in the community. He always kept busy.
Which is why it didn’t surprise me when I learned that Nigger Brown was running for the state senate.
He called me at home and said he wanted me to write a story about his campaign. He didn’t say much. He just told me to come to the old neighborhood and interview him.
And there he was on campaign fliers, attached to telephone poles and in familiar store windows. Our own Sweet Nig.
There he was, that same face, a few decades older. I hadn’t seen him since his mother died. But there he was under the words: FOR STATE SENATE.
The same face but smiling.
The same eyes but softer.
The same Nigger but older.
There he was, pictured in a beautifully tailored pinstripe suit right above the words, the bold red words:
VOTE for NIGGER BROWN.