top of page

Meet The Authors

A Play : Stories from the N-Word Duet

A Reading of the N-Word Duet


A Black man who grew up innocent of racial prejudice and a white man raised to be a white supremacist find common ground exchanging their life stories.

We have struggled together to understand how the insanity of color prejudice and toxic tribalism can be so strong in the world. Our goal is to contribute to healing the cultural wounds of racism. We believe humanity can overcome prejudice, that the poisonous abstractions of race hate and discrimination can be lifted by face-to-face understanding.


We take seriously our role as “elders” in the community, in particular, our role to remember and tell true stories from the past. People who forget how bad it used to be, and how difficult it was to make progress, may not feel the urgency of remembering. But we feel that urgency. 


We see the danger of old social and political forces moving to reassert themselves. The various politicians today who want to deny the realities of slavery and racism, and their supporters, would not mind a return to things as they were before. They especially want to keep the young people ignorant. They know how powerful youth energized by injustice can be.


Elders Dwight and Alex offer their memories, true stories of how things used to be. And they hope to inspire awareness and action.  Let us remember the past so we don’t have to repeat it.


Even though Dwight is Black, it wasn’t until he came of age that he found himself the target of race hate, which confused, frightened, and interested him. Alex’s family in Savannah, Georgia, is committed to white supremacy through their Confederate heritage. Alex knows that if he rejects prejudice, his family will reject him. He moves to Detroit to find work, and he and Dwight meet at a once-a-week story and poetry workshop.


While sharing our stories in the workshop, Dwight and I made a remarkable discovery. We were often writing about exactly the same thing: race in America, even as we came from very different backgrounds and life experiences. It was Dwight who taught me “racism is insanity.” This might sound ridiculously simple, but it helped me in my journey toward understanding.


Our first collaboration was a storytelling event, where we took turns telling our stories to an audience at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History curated by Satori Shakoor. Other storytelling events followed.


We used the title, “The N-Word Duet,” because a key element of the violence in some of the stories was carried by that word, quoted in context. Later, we developed our story duet into a unified narrative, where we reimagined some of our stories as scenes with actors but also included other stories unchanged. The evolved title “Stories from the N-Word Duet” captures the history of the development of the show and also suggests the storytelling flavor of the performance. It combines elements of an evening at “The Moth” with those of a traditional drama.


It starts like this:



When I was a kid, we lived in Detroit in a wonderfully eclectic neighborhood at 23rd and Butternut Streets. It was calm and friendly, racially mixed and tolerant, unusually so.   


Children and adults of different races accepted and respected one another. I got to play on the street with all the kids, black, brown, white and whatever. They took meals with us, and we with them. There was nothing to make me think that someone would dislike me for the color of my skin. My parents told me “people are people,” and their tolerance was reinforced by the tolerant teachings in my classes in theocratic ministry school.

My first encounter with the hard reality of American racism was at a family reunion in Detroit when I was about eight years old. It started out fine. I was playing with some cousins my age who were visiting from Virginia.


But it was 1955, and Emmet Till had just been brutally murdered in a deep-south lynching. We children were unaware, but we could tell the grownups were upset about something. They huddled in groups and whispered the things they didn’t want us to hear. But one of the grownups was not so discrete. The talk of Emmet Till had no doubt stimulated the memories of my 90-year-old Great Great Uncle Custus, who found us kids playing and decided to tell us his story.


I could see the brokenness in Uncle Custus’ face as he talked to us about the Jim-Crow lingering of slavery in the south. I could hear the grief in his voice. Even though at eight years old I had no idea what he was talking about, his strong emotions – his enormous pain – marked my memory of him. “Remember this,” I realized he was telling me, “remember this for as many years as you need until you can understand it.” Uncle Custus died soon after, but his story did not die with him. It was in my mind, on my heart, to carry, and eventually to comprehend, which didn’t happen until I grew up.


Uncle Custus’ testimony changed my awareness of racism. His stories were an important part of my education and my understanding. I share some of his stories when I do my own story telling.


See, my childhood experiences were the exact opposite. I was born in Savannah, Georgia, in a completely segregated neighborhood. I was told that slavery was a benign institution where everybody, even the enslaved, was happy. Smile if you want to, but that’s what my grandmother told us, and nobody contradicted Granny.



And you just accepted that ridiculous “Gone with the Wind” prettified antebellum interpretation of slavery? Really?



I didn’t think about it.

DWIGHT gives ALEX a doubtful look.


Look, it worked like this: My great grandfather was a farmer who used enslaved labor on his farm in Tennessee. He taught his daughter, my grandmother, that there was nothing wrong with slavery, that it was part of God’s plan that the colored people serve the white. That’s what she taught her daughter, my mother. My mother taught me that family loyalty and southern patriotism DEMANDED that I accept white supremacy without question. It was a condition of her love.


What was I supposed to do?



(with heat)

Not accept it? Have some empathy, or even some goddamned COMMON SENSE? Me and my kind, the so-called African-Americans, are the children of rape. Does that sound like everybody was happy? Your great grandfather FUCKED my grandmother. He knew when that child was born it was his. But not only did he deny it was his child, he owned it like an animal. And sold it like one. How could you do that?



I didn’t do that.



Anybody. How could anybody do that? How could anybody look at another human being, perhaps even their own progeny with blond hair and blue eyes, and call that person a slave? Treat it like an animal. Whip it into submission and sell it at a slave market. Your own child.


Your ignorance makes me crazy.



I’m not as ignorant as I used to be, but if we’re going back to childhood, then yes, I believed what I was told. My grandmother – my mother’s mother – was the tribal elder of our extended family. What she said we took as truth.


ALEX leans toward DWIGHT. He lifts his eyes in interrogation. “Do you get what I’m trying to say?” DWIGHT doesn’t respond.


Okay, let me say more. She was raised on her father’s farm and, as a remnant of that country upbringing, she made SOAP in her backyard in Savannah.


DWIGHT is showing impatience.


ALEX (cont’d)

No, wait. The soap is important. Let me tell you about the soap. One of my earliest memories of Granny is when I was eight years old, and she was out back making soap. I wrote a story about it.


I call my story: “The Slave Owner’s Daughter Makes Soap.”


I see with eight-year-old eyes: a wood fire under a cauldron, a red round box of lye powder, old tin cans filled with bacon fat. Granny’s daddy’s slaves used to do this work, but they got freed before my granny got born, she the seventh daughter … the seventh WHITE daughter of a white gentleman bitter how he got robbed of his property.


Granny jabs her broomstick with two hands. Her loose hair sprays as she works the mash, grips the sandy dirt bare-toed, strains out her neck, forces the soap hard. Then she cuts the remnant scum into bite-sized squares.


Eight-year-old me says: Are those squares candy?


Granny chuckles: Little boy – other side Savannah – ate some lye soap once. Burned his throat right out. Had to go round with blue strings tied out his nose.  

Granny loves her terrible stories:

One time, this was a while ago, my uncle was using his gasoline cigar lighter. Why it JUST EXPLODED! Burned poor Uncle Jimmy, burned his face right off.


Way back another time, Miss Ernestine Story was the first person in our neighborhood got electricity. Well, she was dusting her new electric lamp. Now pay attention. It was UNPLUGGED, but it electrocuted her ANYWAY.


Then, there was that little paperboy. What was his name? Jimmy? Billy? I can’t remember. He CRASHED HIS BICYCLE and got his head got ALL WEDGED in a culvert. They worked for hours to GET HIM LOOSE, but he died while they were trying to PRY HIM FREE.


Granny’s stories stick like scum in my brain for years, for decades until I can realize the bitter glee of her father, her father’s ferocious disbelief as his world inverted. My great grandfather lost his wealth, his social standing, even his United States citizenship when the Civil War ended. In 1860, the enslaved had been worth more nationwide than railroad investment, banks, and factories combined. By 1865, they were worth nothing, and for a while, his former slaves could vote and he could not. For him, it was a bitter joke that could not be tolerated.


It was as bitter as a face burned off by gasoline, as bitter as being charred to ashes by electricity, as bitter as getting your head jammed in a culvert. And that crazy bitter sense of injury, of being robbed, of lost greatness, got passed down from those crazy times when the Ku Klux Klan was being organized to these crazy times, as MAGA is being organized, both organizations created in a crazy determination to restore the lost greatness of the past, to claim victory, to refuse to admit the other side won.


My story about the slave owner’s daughter ends this way:


Granny stores the soap in her wood crate, a rough pine box, the kind oranges come in. She picks up and puts down the nasty little soap squares bare-handed. Lost in the rhythm of long practice, she doesn’t give a spit how much they burn. 



Okay. I get the picture. Your childhood was full of bitterness, full of lye soap, and you really couldn’t get away from that lye; your innocence was soaked in lye. In LIES. And the adults in your world had no interest in keeping you innocent of it. I hear you.



And so begins our “Stories from the N-Word Duet.”

White Structure



bottom of page