In the mid 1970s, near the time I was finishing grade school, Hilda and Bernie Heinen moved in next door. They had retired from the farm in rural Stearns County where they and generations of family had lived and where some still lived: still farmed and some still spoke a form of German compromised by a couple of generations away from the motherland, a couple of wars with which they did not want to be associated and a longing to be able to navigate the logistics required to make it through a trip into town, the stock yard or the grain elevator. Hilda and Bernie’s English was good with irregularities common in our town that often interchanged the words borrow and lend as well as the words teach and learn and with an accent that hinted at the rural Minnesotan and German. Lake Wobegon.
Mom and dad came from New Orleans, a different world where a few
still spoke the last smatterings of Creole, but themselves spoke English
that had no hint of the French that dominated many of the name places
and was cultivated to distinguish them as Xavier University students.
Hilda and Bernie moved into town partly uninfected by much of the
media bias that tainted most of America’s perception of African
Americans. Mom had learned well from her father and her own experience
to meet people like you were meeting Jesus.
Hilda and Bernie were good people and good neighbors. Mom and Hilda
became good friends. Better than the neighbors across the street who
were related. Better than most would have expected and better than most
would have dared or bothered.
And most would not have expected the exchange that happened between
mom and Hilda one afternoon while they stood in one of their front
Hilda referred to to a black person using the word nigger. That, in
Stearns County, Minnesota and many other places would not be so
unexpected–maybe for reasons other than why, on this day, the word came
out of Hilda’s mouth. What came next was truly unexpected.
Of course, my mom what stunned. Surprised and stung in a way that
hearing the word nigger always stings. It is America’s ultimate
unwelcoming–and we as black people know the unwelcome that comes with
this word and a lot of other edifices that loom larger than a passing
But mom was not mad. It did not change her relationship with Hilda,
like so many stinging encounters might. Mom was hurt, but took a half
moment to seek the best way to respond, maybe even asking God what to
do. She decided to do something that she might not have been able to do
with many other people, with any other type of relationship and maybe
not in today’s social spaces.
She told Hilda what that word meant: what it means in common language
and what it felt in her ears and to the ears of someone who is or
believes is the humanity of African Americans and other people who walk
this earth. Mom was kind and gentle–because she sensed that Hilda
really didn’t know.
And she didn’t. Hilda faced the biggest shame of her friendship with
mom. She really didn’t know and would not have wanted to hurt mother
or anyone with the word if she knew what it meant. Hilda could not have
What was so remarkable about this exchange was that this is not how
we handle this issue in America and not many are willing or really have
the honest, safe space to misstep and repair the damage.
What usually happens is that someone shouts “Nigger” to draw a line
of supremacy. The target of the slur either gets out of the way of the
unhealthy and harmful verbal assault or responds with either the angry
pain of the injury or a rebuttal that falls on the emotionally deaf or
Or maybe the response it an attempt to say how that kind of language
and attitude is hurtful and damaging to common spaces, not much unlike
what mom did with Hilda. Where Hilda showed her exceptional nature was
in her response.
Most of the time when we explain that this kind of language and other
slights we encounter (and I hate to call them slights because there is
nothing slight about systemic degradation and social, political and
economic disadvantage), we get a response that complains that is
dismissive, that we don’t have any reason to complain, that somehow they
are entitled to speaking to and about us with impunity.
Instead, the two women chose to understand each other.
They made a space moved mom to choose Hilda as the person to whom she
sent her two youngest after getting off the school bus for tending and a
snack before her older kids got home. It made a space that moved mom
to be the primary helper for Hilda, more than her family who lived not
far from us, or the once removed cousins who lived across the street
when Bernie was dying of cancer.
The two women chose to share a space that most of America will not
work to create, for which most of America is reluctant to work and that
many do not want to exist.
After Bernie died, Hilda let her hair go white. She let mom know how
sad she was without him. Mom worried, wiped tears and let her tell
stories and shared a few of her own. They were busy being Jesus for
each other and entertain the angel they saw in each others’ eyes.