When did I first hear it?
No memory. It seems to have hung
over my childhood like the odor
of the Wilson packing plant
on a heavy summer evening.

Where did I hear it”
Not at home, where my Northern family
was unfamiliar with its everyday use
in my Jim Crow state. So probably
at school.

Where do I encounter it now?
Nineteenth-century books
where its usage is as common as the word “man.”
Now it is heard among those terrified of change,
in rap and on the street, where it is earned
and occasionally in my own writing when
it can make the point that this specific offence
is still current

How has it changed?
My mother–in-law, a true Southern Lady
always pronounced it “negra,”
as though the feminizing of it somehow
made it less distasteful than
either the n-word or the conventional Negro.
It was a pretense at best, but a conscious one.

Why has it not disappeared along with segregated
bathrooms, water fountains and armies?
Why does it still permeate like the fetid smell
of the long-defunct Wilson plant?

Janet Taliaferro