“My revulsion turned to grief that my own people could give the hate stare, could shrivel men’s souls, could deprive humans of rights they unhesitatingly accord their livestock.” John Howard Griffin – “Black Like Me”
“Lord, you have heard the vile names they call me.” – Lamentations 3:61A NLT
I have never been fond of the word “nigger,” but I suppose I never really gave much conscious thought as to what effect calling a person one could have on that person’s dignity either. That is, until I heard the word “chomo” -·used -by someone talking to me.
Of course, I should have known that just like sticks and stones, names can cut; they can sting; they can bruise and make one bleed; just not in the conventional sense, such as physical objects that are wielded as weapons and used to strike someone and cause pain or physical injury.
But the hurt is there just the same, perhaps in an even more painful and damaging way. Scars develop but instead of being physical blemishes that become items of curiosity and discussion, these scars mar the beauty and dignity of an individual’s soul. They are ugly and meant to be hidden, viewed only by the bearer and are best left unmentioned and undisturbed for fear that talking about them can somehow reopen the wounds.
You see, being called “chomo” was not my first exposure to the indignity of hateful names wielded as weapons; names whose sole purpose was to hurt, embarrass, demean and diminish the recipient in order that the one wielding those weapons might somehow make himself appear to be superior.
When I was in high school, I was the object of such weapons due to the fact that my hair was coarse, wiry and very curly. One person began a hateful – and hurtful – “game” of singling me and my hair out for attention by calling me names such as “nigger knots, ” “Brillo pad, ” “pubic-head,” and a couple of other insults related to both male and female genitalia; all embarrassing, all hurtful and demeaning and all met with no response on my part which, I suppose, gave the one wielding those weapons the perception of power and superiority he sought. Perhaps he needed that perception to compensate for some feelings of diminished capacity or ability on his part. I don’t know. I never asked him nor did I ever respond to him. But after forty-plus years, I can still feel those words strike me with almost physical brutality. I can still remember his name and I can still see his face – full of meanness and ignorance – as he struck me with those weapons of words.
In a way I think that injuries caused by those words were more debilitating than those caused by any actual sticks or stones I had ever been struck by. I feel this way because of the clarity with which they are remembered and the degree of hurt, embarrassment and shame that accompanies the memories.
But all of that is nothing compared to what I, and sex offenders like me, face here in prison and will face in the future as we step outside these walls and attempt to move forward with whatever remains of our lives.
In our present situation as men serving a physical punishment of “freedom denied” as prescribed by law we, as sex offenders, are reminded on a daily basis of our lack of status in the prison “food chain.” From the selection of tables in the dining hall that tend to identify an individual as “one of them,” to being unofficially but undeniably deprived of the right to work in certain areas or use certain recreational facilities without being confronted and intimidated; from the absence of sex offenders, like me, at the tables in the housing unit set aside for playing cards or engaging in a chess match; to the dictating of where “we” can sit while watching one of the four televisions recently moved out of the enclosed TV rooms (from which we were “banned”) into the common area. All of these things and more cry out to us a silent “chomo” that can be heard loud and clear even when the word is spoken with an averted gaze as opposed to an open mouth.
It should come as no surprise that every restriction, every rule, every attempt to demean and diminish is prompted by the exact same types of individuals who fomented the hate, anger and violence toward African-Americans in the south in decades past. They exhibit the same white-robed, hooded predilection to press downward on a group, class, creed or race of people for no other reason than to feed the need to overcome their own ignorance by demonstrating self-perceived superiority.
These weak-minded, loudmouthed individuals who publicly profess to being the true arbiters of law and justice within the confines of the compound cover the whiteness of their own skin with tattoos that reveal the blackness of their hearts. They have taken to preying upon sex offenders because, for the most part, they can spew their venom without fear of reprisal. After all, we are older, nerdier and less accustomed to violent ways than the average inmate.
The perception of weakness is like the scent of fear to a junkyard dog to those whose need is to beat down another human being for no reason other than to cover up their own ignorance, insignificance and inferiority.
It would be laughable were it not for the seriousness with which these peddlers of prejudice and hate practice their self-anointed supremacy.
It would be laughable were it not for the fact that being singled out for hate has an impact on one’s perception of oneself, even when the haters are as insignificant as cockroaches in the grand scheme of things.
It would be laughable were it not for the fact that words – even those unspoken – can and do hurt, even when we pretend and profess that they don’t.
Just like sticks and stones.