Catfishin‘ to come If ever I uncouple myself from my family store, I may look back on what I’ve learned much as Mark Twain looked back at his life spent guiding ships on the Mississippi River. Bright as he was, he remembered every port and every sand bar, every dialect and every rascal, every story and each embellishment.
Although the boat canal alongside my Dan River once hauled cotton and dry goods, it is gone now along with worker’s songs and name calling and idioms I vaguely remember. Occasionally, an older customer will make a remark that transports me to the old days, to simple times when words were less nuanced, descriptive phrases more candid.
How many times did I cringe when an old customer, a man whose family my Dad and I had known for decades, would smile at me and announce, as if being absolutely honest and frank, that he was going to “Jew me down”?
Of course, I’m Jewish, and I never hesitate to tell that to my students in order that they understand my bias in favor of Israel. I want them to know that I am biased, and that I own it, and that not everyone shares my views. However, the folks who would warn me that they were going to “Jew me down” never supplied a context, never said, “That’s what my Dad always said, so I’m just repeating his remark.”
Indeed, although both black and white patrons used the phrase, most of the time I heard it from my black customers. Most often, they were long timers whose families we had taken care of for at least two or three generations.
When I finally accepted that old speech habits so deeply rooted would disappear in time, I stopped my occasional retort, “No, you’ll have to Christian me down because I’m Jewish and you’re not.” Although it gave me some satisfaction to communicate that thought with a grin that matched theirs and just as lovingly, I could tell it didn’t seem to register at a deeply conscious level.
Perhaps that’s why I eventually stopped admonishing my black salesmen not to call their customers, even some of their favorite customers, nigger. They used the word, and still do, as if it were no more offensive than a tossed quarter, a gift of sorts. The n-word, I discovered, could be used affectionately or derogatorily depending on the inflection.
There are countless variations. Just as there are in Huck Finn, a book I am drifting through reverentially. As told through the eyes and mind of young Huck, the story of Huck and widow Douglas’ slave, Jim, offers amazing insights that parallel my own as I’ve grown up in and around the expansion of civil rights in the south. Directly involved with freedom’s spread, I often marvel at vestiges of the language, the colorful quips I used to hear.
Changes have been long in coming. No longer can I even imagine hearing a conversation between a black person and a white person, as between Jim and Huck, where each uses the n-word casually when referring to other people, or themselves. In that sense, it comes across as completely innocent, uninformed, perhaps, but innocent.
I’ll be writing and thinking more about this long after I’ve finished Huck Finn. I’ll wonder how I will teach about its place in our culture, about whether to regard it as a relic or an abomination. Or will I just turn my back to it when I finally leave my store, hopeful that, like the phrase, “Jew me down,” it will vanish, like me, from the sales floor?
That’ll be something to consider as I amble toward the bank of the Dan with my fishing pole and my bait where the catfish are jumpin’ and the striped bass call to me with a language all their own.
B. Koplen 8/18/11