Words can cut in ways we don’t always intend. While stationed in the deep South in the ’60s, I decided to look up some relatives who lived on Kuhn Street in Biloxi, Mississippi. While my wife and I were trying to find our way, I thought to ask for directions. A young black woman walked down the sidewalk, so I pulled alongside and asked her where Kuhn Street was. She never slowed, never opened her mouth, never looked in my direction. Had she looked at me, she’d have seen not a malicious person, just a foolish innocent. How many times had that woman been mocked?
We found Kuhn Street on our own, just a couple of blocks away. We had a pleasant evening playing cards with my relatives, who were cordial to us Yankees. I sensed that the friendliness would last as long as we didn’t discuss race or politics. When one of them made a passing reference to “darkies,” we ignored it in part because we were their guests and in part because we felt like foreigners. Also, I felt quietly embarrassed over my thoughtless request for directions.