What a Tale of 2 ‘Johns’ Teaches Us About the N-Word

The debate over who can say the n-word is about respect for how people want to be addressed.

A mock funeral to symbolically bury the n-word is held at the 98th Annual NAACP National Convention in 2007 in Detroit.
A mock funeral to symbolically bury the n-word is held at the 98th Annual NAACP National Convention in 2007 in Detroit. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The death of a dear friend last week reminded me of a small incident, a long time ago, that might shed some fresh light on the seemingly endless debate over racial respect and who can and can’t use the word “nigger.”

The friend was John Egerton, with whom I worked during the early 1970s at the now disbanded Race Relations Reporter in Nashville, Tenn.—a foundation-supported newsletter that covered the dramatic transformation that swept over the South after the passage of the civil rights laws and the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. In addition to being a superb journalist who went on to write acclaimed books on the emergence of the civil rights movement and the roots of the South’s multifaceted culture and cuisine, Egerton was one of the most decent men I’ve ever known.

He also happened to have been white.

In any case, one of our other co-workers in the rambling house where the Reporter was headquartered was the custodian, a courtly black gentleman in his 60s who was known as “John.” For the longest time I believed that was his name, since that’s what everyone had called him for the decade or more he had worked in the building. He was unfailingly cheerful and courteous to the almost all-white staff of the newsletter, who in turn treated him affectionately.

It came as a shock when one of my two black co-workers informed me that “John” wasn’t his name at all. He had been called that only because one of the white women who worked at the Reporter claimed to be unable to pronounce his real name and so had given him a nickname of her own choosing. And it just stuck.

When I quietly asked him about it, he said he had never liked being called John and would prefer to be called by the name his parents had given him, which was “Ewing Cole.” But he didn’t want to make an issue of it because he liked the people at the Reporter and didn’t want to inconvenience them. That wasn’t good enough for me and the two other black professionals on the staff.

We thought that calling the man John was dehumanizing and disrespectful, a hangover from the revolting practice among some Southern whites of calling grown black men “boys” and elderly black men and women “uncle” and “auntie.” We weren’t going to stand for it, so we took to addressing him as Mr. Cole out of respect for his age—and insisted that our co-workers do the same.

Most of our white colleagues, including Egerton, got it right away and began addressing him as Mr. Cole or, in some cases, Ewing. But some of them, including the woman who had dubbed him John in the first place, just couldn’t kick the habit. She kept calling him John until she quit the job a few months later. And although I never thought she was a bad person, or that she meant any harm, I was glad when she left. She was just too immersed in the lazy stereotypes that white Southerners had developed to justify the indignities they imposed on black fellow Southerners to recognize the arrogance that underlay her behavior.

I’m convinced that she went to her grave without ever understanding what was wrong with calling him John.