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