Poet suggests a sentence for Reds' Marge Schott


December 09, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

You don't think of poets as confrontational. Emily Dickinson, as far as I can tell, never left the house. And, if I'm ever in a bar fight, I'm going after the guy who has just finished penning an ode to a nightingale. Poets may write about big shoulders, but they don't usually have them.

There are some exceptions in the poetry world. Rudyard Kipling. Muhammad Ali. But, basically, you know what I mean.

And then I heard about Nikki Giovanni, a poet with decidedly small shoulders who took on Marge Schott the other night.

Schott, as you must know, is the venom-spewing owner of the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. Once, she was best known for allowing her dogs to use the baseball field as a giant litter box. That was in her eccentric stage. She moved on from there, of course, to be accused of calling players "million-dollar niggers" and spouting off about "money-grubbing Jews."

Baseball responded immediately by forming a committee. Meantime, many owners were hoping that none of their private conversations had been taped.

Giovanni didn't form a committee. She ran into Schott last Saturday at a banquet in Cincinnati and told her it was time to make amends by selling her team.

" . . . step down," Giovanni said, staring at Schott, lecturing her, "because it is the right thing to do."

Schott said nothing. That was not an option for Giovanni, and not just because she was guest speaker at a banquet in Cincinnati at the time they met.

"I had to say something," she said later on the phone from Blacksburg, Va., where she is a professor of literature at Virginia Tech. "I couldn't be who I am and not say something. I was simply compelled to reply to what she had said about black people and Jews."

Giovanni, once an angry young poet who agrees that she has mellowed, did not come looking for a showdown with Schott. She had been invited long before the Schott controversy to address a meeting of the National Council of Negro Women's Cincinnati chapter. She is a member. So was her grandmother. When she was asked to honor a local teacher, she was delighted to come home to Cincinnati, where she grew up.

The council president, who had said Schott should be forgiven for her remarks, invited the Reds owner to attend as well.

"I didn't know until I got there that Mrs. Schott would be there," Giovanni said. "I didn't seek her out, but when Marge Schott comes to me, I must say something or I'm saying that what she did is all right. I didn't mean to be impolite or insensitive, but she has used language that is unacceptable, and people must say so.

"Words matter."

Words matter. Of course, they matter to Giovanni. She's a poet. But they matter to everyone. That's what this Marge Schott business is all about. They were wrong what they told us as kids about sticks and stones. Words are much more effective as an instrument of pain.

You can't escape words. You hear the ugly words in line at the grocery store or sitting at Camden Yards. You hear them in racist or ethnic jokes.

What do you do when you hear the "n" word?

Do you pretend you didn't hear it? Do you smile in pained embarrassment? Do you walk away?

Or do you say you don't care for that kind of language, risking either a confrontation or, worse, hearing the guy tell you to lighten up, that he was just kidding and what are you anyway, the PC police?

The point is that Marge Schott apparently said "nigger" in a conference call with the other baseball owners, and nobody said a word. Now, when the truth comes out in a court deposition, the owners, suddenly alarmed, are studying the matter as the world watches.

Sports get too much attention as a battleground for social justice. Everyone knows the number of black managers, but nobody can tell you how many black CEOs there are. If baseball were to be free of racism, society would be little better off. But symbols matter as much as words do. Schott has become such a symbol.

"We have an obligation to encourage, if not require, the proper use of language," Giovanni said. "We can't let our business people say 'those little Japs' or that Hitler went too far. How much too far? A million too far?

"I'm a language person. We can control our language; and it's very, very important that we do. I just hate the idea that we're coming into the 21st century the same way we came into the 20th. I know we can do better. We have to require better of our public figures. We just have to."

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