By Ted Waddell
LOCH SHELDRAKE June 29, 2001 Karyle Ann Woods recalled the afternoon she came home from second grade and asked her mother, Mommy, whats a nigger?
As a seven-year-old, Woods scored 100 on a test, and her teacher started calling her a pickaninny and a nigger, which caused the class to break out in laughter.
When her mother got home from work, Woods asked her mom what the word meant, and she just froze.
She turned around very slowly and said, Where did you hear that word? said Woods. I said, Miss Finnigan got mad at me today and called me a nigger, and everybody laughed, and I laughed. I laughed too, because I didnt know what it meant, but it must have been funny because everyone was laughing.
Woods said she is still at a loss to describe the emotions that crossed her mothers face when confronted with that word in her own home.
First of all, we dont use that word, Woods recalled her mother saying. It expresses utter disdain and disrespect for your entire existence. . . . Id hoped youd never have to hear that word.
Those were her exact words, said Woods, adding that her mother was talking to her but also to herself for not preparing her child for the n-word. Theyre burned into my brain.
Woods said, however, that shes never been racially slurred to her face as an adult.
It may have something to do with PC, or it may be my attitude, [because] I dont carry myself as a victim, she said. I dont think being black is a victimlike thing. It is what I am.
Woods, a resident of Monticello, was recently a guest speaker during a forum on hate. The session was held May 1 at Sullivan County Community College in Loch Sheldrake.
The forum was convened in the wake of an allegedly hate-motivated firebombing of the home of Herbert Finn while his wife and several kids (four of his children, a niece and a nephew) slept inside.
According to local authorities, a pair of area teens 15-year-old Josh Lucas and Brian Palyi, 16 allegedly first tried to start the early morning fire on April 6 with a homemade chemical bomb, and when that failed, they returned with a can of gasoline and set the outside of the Finn residence on fire.
Sullivan County District Attorney Stephen Lungen has gone on record that his office will prosecute the teenagers as adults.
The reaction of the black community to the firebombing?
The phones burned everybody was talking to everybody, said Woods. It was, Whats going on . . . a beef between Mr. Finn and the kids families?
Everybody wanted to make it about something other than what it was [because] nobody wants to think its gotten to this. . . . Weve been doing good, [and] we dont want to talk about this racist thing here in the county.
Nobody wanted it to be what it actually was, she added. For us, it was I hope to God those kids [the perpetrators] werent black.
Woods wasnt in court during the arraignment.
I didnt want to see their faces burned into my brain, she said.
Speaking of the contingent from the local chapter of the NAACP and other concerned citizens who attended the court proceeding, she said, They needed to see justice done, [but] for us, justice is never a foregone conclusion.
Woods reaction to the forum?
The seminar really didnt chip away at the tip of the iceberg, said Woods. There are so many levels of the consequences of hate crimes . . . the fear, the anxiety, the stress and the psychological depression.
During the forum, Woods, unlike her co-speaker and Monticello High School classmate Josephine Finn (Herbert Finns cousin), preferred to use the politically correct version of nigger called the n-word.
The folks in the audience didnt deserve my hostility, said Woods of her decision. When I use that word, I use it in the ugliest possible inflections, because I want it to have impact. When I use that word, the feelings are very hard to pull it back.
Woods added that she thinks that, while laws can be passed to govern behavior, you cant legislate hate.
Taking her turn at the podium during the forum, Woods recounted taking a security guard at a defunct department store in Liberty on a wild goose chase when she felt he had targeted her as a potential shoplifter based on the color of her skin.
It was blatant . . . and I led that man all over the place before I bought something, said Woods.
As for the forum overall, Woods was somewhat pleased.
My God, this forum was a first, she said. Were actually talking about what weve been talking about at the kitchen table for years.
Asked why she thought the turnout was sparse, Woods replied, Not everybody wants to hear the truth, because the truth is very painful.
Hate is based on what you dont understand . . . what you feel in competition with or inferior to, and insecurity, envy and jealousy, she said.
According to Woods, hatred toward blacks stems from the days of slavery in America.
We were needed but not wanted, she said. We were the backbone of the agricultural South, but we were not wanted after Lincoln broke the backbone of the South by ending slavery. . . . They destroyed our language bases, our tribal heritage and our ability to practice our religions.
Woods recalled a recent conversation the other day with a friend, in which she said she couldnt help but think the only reason white folks have spent so much time and resources over hundreds of years putting us down is because they know were better.
She said, You sound like a racist, and I said, I am [because] I believe in me, my ability and our ability as a race.
According to Woods, while there has been a lot of progress in recent years, there is still a presumed perception of blacks being watermelon eating, loosely moraled, cant be trusted, definitely going to steal, you know theyre going to be late, lazy and shiftless . . . [and that] youve got to supervise em like an overseer.
Were constantly working against that, she said. For us, a certain amount of paranoia and schizophrenia is normal to surviving in the United States of America.
But is there hope?
Were always going to be hyphenated people [African-Americans], Woods concluded. The bottom line is, it aint never going to be okay to just be an American.
To be continued Tuesday