The First Time I Was Called the N-Word

A few years ago, my students did a research project on emotional memory. They explained to me what emotional memory was.

Ask a person: “Do you remember what you were doing on February 10, 2017?” They probably won’t know.

Ask a person: “Do you remember what you were doing on Sept. 11, 2001?” If they were above the age of around 8 years old that day, they could tell you where they were, how they were feeling and what they did on 9/11.


That’s how I feel about the first time I was called the n-word. I was around 8 years old. I had a friend named Denise. Denise became my friend when we were about 6.

My family had moved to South Wheeling from Center Wheeling. Urban renewal had come into our neighborhood and had taken all the homes. Few of the families in the neighborhood owned the homes, so we all had to move.

Most families moved to East Wheeling. Our family moved to South Wheeling to be closer to my dad’s work in the Moundsville coalmines. South Wheeling was a neighborhood composed of a majority of white residents.

Denise’s family was the first one to welcome us to the neighborhood. She taught me how to drink hot tea with cream and sugar. We would sit at her family’s kitchen table, often having tea parties. I still drink my tea that way today.

One day, Denise and I were fighting about heaven knows what. The first thing that came to her mind when she got mad at me was to call me the n-word. I knew that the n-word was a word that my parents told me that no one should ever call me. I also knew by the tone of her voice how hateful she meant it. It really hurt that my friend would call me that.

I didn’t know a mean, racist word to call her. My parents had never taught me anything like that. So I called her house stinky.

I went home upset and told my mom about Denise calling me the n-word and me calling her house stinky. My mom made me go to apologize to Denise’s mom for calling her house stinky. I did.

Denise and I played together again. She never called me that again, but our relationship had changed forever. Denise moved away before we went to high school.

I ran into Denise many years later when we were adults. I was excited to see her because we hadn’t seen each other for years. Her only words to me were that her son got beat up by a Black man, so he doesn’t like Black people. I told her I was sorry to hear that and walked away. I haven’t seen her again since then.


I’ve never been called the n-word, to my face, again. But, I have heard the n-word in many different ways.

Subscribe to Weelunk

I heard it when I went to my guidance counselor my senior year in high school to ask about going to college for nursing. All she said was that the college I wanted to attend doesn’t offer that anymore with no further instructions. I didn’t know why she wouldn’t help me. I had to do my own research and went to college.

I heard it when I was passed over for a job that I was qualified for. I was told they decided to go in a different direction. They never changed directions. I decided to stay in my current position until I found a job that appreciated what I have to offer. I did.

I heard it when I was on the city bus with my son, and a woman I didn’t know said, “Why are they renovating that playground? They will destroy it.” It was the playground where I took my son to play. Why would she say that? What did she know? The next day I went to every playground in Wheeling to see the difference with our playground and the others in the city. The only difference was it was in my neighborhood. I started a community organization so that my neighborhood would not be left out.

I heard it when I spoke with my son’s guidance counselor about his school struggles, and she said maybe I expect too much from him. Why wouldn’t I expect the most from my son? Why wouldn’t she? I spoke with my son’s teachers and made a plan with them to help him.

I heard it when my son told me he was walking on his college campus to get something to eat and was stopped by a police officer because he “fit the description.” Then, on his way back to his room, he was stopped again by the same officer. He told him if he hadn’t done anything wrong he would let him search his room.

I could list more. People need to think about the things they say. Think about the things they write. Think about the things they do. It doesn’t just affect you. It affects a lot of other people and is perpetuated by schools, employers, communities and governments.

Believe me when I say I don’t think about the first time I was called the n-word all day every day. However, just like 9/11, there is always something that reminds me of that day. It sparks that emotional memory.

• A lifelong Wheeling resident, Darlene Stradwick is the youngest daughter of Reuben Sr. and Ethel Stradwick and the mother of Justin and Zachary Miller. She is the founder and past president of the East Wheeling Civics, and she assists with the Ohio Valley African-American Student Association (OVASSA). Darlene is a past employee of the Ohio Valley Medical Center and is a 30-year employes of West Virginia University. Her interests are health care, the Children’s Tumor Foundation (CTF) and National Institute of Health (NIH). Her son, Zachary, has dealt with the effects of neurofibromatosis for over 20 years.