The Power of a Word
A single word can be used to belittle, hurt, and humiliate. One word can cause so much hurt to a person that they burst into tears or spiral down into a damaging hole that they can't get out of for an extended amount of time. Throughout history, names have been used to keep a population in its place. Insults have been hurled to make a single person understand what another thinks of them. Words are used all the time to cause damage to a person or an entire peoples soul. One word can have a lot of power.
In “What's in a Name?”, Henry Louis Gates father was a well respected negro in his community. Maybe the better way to put it is more respected. He worked two jobs, and being more financially successful elevated the family's status. The Gates family was the only negro allowed into a local drugstore to actually sit down and eat. On one occasion, Mr. Gates and his father went in together for ice cream and his father greeted a white man. The white man, Mr. Wilson, responded, but called his father “George”. George was a disparaging name for black men. Mr. Gates asked his dad to correct the Mr. Wilson, thinking it had been a mistake. When he realized that Mr. Wilson had deliberately insulted his father, it changed something in him forever.
I believe Mr. Gates could not comprehend Mr. Wilson acknowledging and belittling his father at the same time. Why did he say anything back at all? Why would he be rude on purpose? Mr. Gates, up until that moment, had believed that Mr. Wilson was a nice person. After Mr. Gates' father explained that he called every black man George, his opinion shifted. The white man insulted every black man he knew. This was the first time Mr. Gates could see that people were not always who they seemed.
He was confused about why his father did not correct Mr. Wilson. Surely his father must have been insulted. He must have understood that Mr. Wilson meant to insult him. I believe he became embarrassed for his father and wanted him to correct Mr. Wilson, to stand up for himself. His mother called it “just one of those things” (Gates 6), and he was upset that they accepted that. It was painful that they had so many of those moments. He wanted his father to change something, to correct the wrong. Accepting it was painful and shameful. He wrote that he could never look Mr. Wilson in the eye again. One word, “George”, made a little boy see clearly a white man, his black father, their positions in society, and the injustice that society tolerated. It changed his view of the world and of his family forever.
In A Lesson Before Dying, a black man, Jefferson, is sentenced to be electrocuted for a murder that he did not commit. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time with a couple of boys he had known his whole life, and they were trouble. They robbed a liquor store that was owned by a white man, and during the robbery the white man was killed. A black man at the scene of the crime never stood any chance of not being convicted. When the sentencing part of his trial came up, his lawyer tried to get him out of a death sentence. The lawyer claimed that he was the equivalent of a hog. “I ask you, I implore, look carefully- do you see a man sitting here?” (7; pt. 3, ch.1)... “What justice would there be to take this life? Justice gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in electric chair as this.” (8; pt.4, ch.1) Jefferson and his godmother, Aunt Emma, are both deeply affected by the word hog. She calls on a family friend, Grant, to help Jefferson learn to be a man. She says, “I don't want them to kill no hog” and “I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet.” (13; pt.2, ch.2) She wants him to die with dignity. The first time they see him after the court date, Jefferson has taken being a hog to heart. He's so hurt that he snuffles and makes hog noises, saying that dignity is for “youmans” (83; pt.8, ch.11) and they should only be...
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