Da-n Straight That’s What I Am
"Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth."
January 12, 2018, Words By: Tim Merrill, Image By: Ancient Nazareth
I’ve rarely been called the n-word to my face, but I know what people are thinking. I’m a scary looking big dreadlocked 300-pound black guy who loves bench-presses and bicep curls. Racists tend to keep their biases to themselves or mask them in implicit language when I’m around.
Chief among coded expressions aimed to prick me comes in the form of, “So you’re from Camden.” Such statements are packed with pejoratives pointing to my city as a place of poor, violent, angry people looking to victimize both the furthest stranger and the closest friend. So, when the “you’re from Camden” statement emerges, I realize I’ve been subtly and carefully called the n-word—with the “er” as opposed to the “a”.
Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
A small trouble town on Southern New Jersey’s side of the Delaware River, Camden recoils in the shadows of Philadelphia. Similarly, Jesus’ small troubled hometown of Nazareth sat in the shadows of Galilee’s larger and more important cities, such as Tzipori (Sepphoris), an administrative seat for the empire and home to a Roman military garrison. The people of Nazareth had gained a reputation for being angry and discontented, loathed rivals among the other towns in the despised region of Galilee. Their status as scorned people from a little, angry rivalistic town emerges in Nathaniel’s honest and coded statement on being introduced to Jesus—“Nazareth, can anything good come from there?” Being experienced at decoding such statements, I attest to the fact that Nathaniel basically called Jesus the n-word, again with the “er”.
The poverty, anger, and violence in cities such as Camden, Nazareth, Caracas, Durban, and Chihuahua are not accidental. They are orchestrated over years of systemic oppression, exploitation, and state sponsored domestic terror. In the case of Camden, it may be that after the rage-inspired riots of the 1970s, all the jobs, opportunities, and businesses flowed out to the suburbs and all the suburban trash, sewage, and drug addicts flowed into the city.
In the case of Nazareth, it may have been the reported crucifixion of over 2,000 rebellious Jews in neighboring Tzipori, right around the time Jesus was born. Surely many of Nazareth’s Jews would have been caught up in this conflagration; they represented much of Tzipori’s workforce as the city developed into a sprawl. It has been suggested that Jesus’ father, and possibly he himself, may have been employed in rebuilding efforts in Tzipori during the post-uprising years.
“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”
Those outside the context rarely understand the lived experiences and abiding feelings of alienation, isolation, and frustration that mark residents of small, angry, violent towns. Continuous flows of anger and rage often involuntarily disgorge from the citizens of such blighted cities on a daily basis, spilling out in interactions that gain them a certain reputation and assign to them a certain name.
Although it usually upsets me when Hip Hop artists carelessly throw around that name within their music, I must admit my glee at Jesus’ embrace and ownership of Nathaniel’s contextualized pronouncement of the n-word. Jesus says something akin to the old hood language of “real recognizes real” or “You da—n straight that’s what I am.” Jesus’ response is no different from the bothers I see embracing our reputation of America’s most dangerous city, wearing their CMD (Camden Most Dangerous) t-shirts and Hoodies, standing in defiant opposition and shaming those who lend us much scorn, disdain, oppression, and coded language, but never a hand or a moment of grace.
The details of the incarnation continue to leave me in awe. The eternally divine not only comes to us wrapped in the frailty of flesh, but comes at a time of global imperial oppression. Coming as one prone to be called the n-word in the coded language of the first century, he embraces all the implications of the slur: the discrimination, forced labor, state sponsored terror, and the ultimate hanging as strange fruit from a blood-stained tree.
Like Jesus and his ancient sister and brothers, I can clean up, dress up and kiss up, speak at the highest levels of the king’s English, spew out the high-sounding thoughts on the arts and culture, but there is no escaping the fact that I am Camden, prone to being called the n-word, especially when I present as a problem to the system. Thus, my current incarnationally inspired comfort comes with Jesus standing with me in full embrace, shaming callous gracelessness and proclaiming “Da-n straight that’s what we are.”