The freedom to say “go back to Africa”

Martin Luther King Jr. Delivers 'I Have A Dream' Speech, 1963

I still remember the day when a fifth-grade classmate told me to go back to Africa and take my African name with me.

I was confused.

I hadn’t been to Africa, although I’d love to go.

Secondly, my name is not African.

I was named after a great aunt, who, as far as I know, had never stepped foot on African soil.

By the fifth grade, I had looked up the origins of my name at the library and realized it was of English origin.

Today it is easy to Google that the name is derived from the Germanic word “amal,” which means “work.”

The various nicknames for people named Amelia (some of which I answer to) are also not African: Amy, Emily, Melly, Milly, Mel….

They originated in Europe, just like my fifth grade classmate’s ancestors.

I was offended by the girl’s statement, but mostly I thought she was dumb.

A lot of people have said a lot of dumb things to me since then, ranging from the n-word to dummy.

And heck, I’ve said things that other people have found offensive.

As much as words sometimes sting, I rejoice in the fact that I live in a nation where unkind things can be said.

Let me go on the record: I love freedom of speech.

I love our Constitution and all of its amendments, but there is a special place in my soul for the very first one.

The parts about religion, peaceful assembly, petition the government and of course, the press give me goosebumps, but it is the part about freedom of speech that really makes my heart scream “amore.”

It is the James Dean of all the amendments, a bad boy with a heart of gold.

It gave that little fifth-grader the right to tell me to go back to Africa just as it gave Martin Luther King Jr. the right to say “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It gives white nationalist David Duke the right to spew hate and activist Urvashi Vaid to talk about LGBT rights.

Freedom of speech is not about protecting speech everyone agrees with.

Saying “water is wet” or “Amelia Earhart’s middle name was Mary” doesn’t really need the protection of our Constitution.

It is that other kind of speech the first amendment shelters: the kind that ruffles feathers, causes eyes to roll and that can make fists fly.

It is not just about stuff I want to hear or stuff you want to say.

You or I not liking “it” doesn’t mean “it” should not be said.

I’d like to think my fifth-grade classmate regrets what she said to me.

I suspect her words didn’t come from her heart, but were the result of something she had heard.

We had been friends until that moment I think.

You can say what you want, but words can hurt and do end friendships.

Even if she embraced those backward and racist beliefs, she had a right to verbalize them.


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