07/02/2013 05:46 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

What the 'N-Word' Means to Me

As I watched Don Lemon's program, "The N-Word," Monday evening, I was tremendously moved, and so glad I watched.

You see, as a woman born in Birmingham, AL in the early '40s, I've been thoroughly enmeshed all my life with black culture all my life, in good ways and bad.

It was important for me to watch and listen carefully as Lemon and his panelists Wynton Marsalis, LeVar Burton, Tim Wise, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, and others shared their experiences with the word because, as they spoke movingly with passion but not heat, they led to the beginning of racial conversations we should have separately and together in order to acknowledge our joint heritage, try to understand each other, and move forward together.

It's clear from the attention we've given to the Paula Deen and Trayvon Martin issues that America does care about race and, until now, we haven't talked so productively about it. I think it's time though because, together, we have so much to offer in providing a cohesive more positive atmosphere of understanding and trust in which our country can grow. At the same time, we'll be laying the foundation for a much better America as a legacy for our children and other future generations.

We white people of today didn't create the hideous conditions of decades past, but we are certainly influential in what happens today.

Here, I'll follow Lemon's lead and use the actual words, to convey the power they bring and make them more real to us.

My parents, born in 1913 and 1916 in Birmingham, Alabama, along with their siblings and parents, were molded by conditions in which they were indoctrinated. This doesn't excuse them but, for white Southerners then, 'it was just the way things were', according to my Mom years later.

My earliest memories are of our maid pushing the stroller with my baby sister, as we went for walks. Then, when I was about 8 or so, we had moved to Miami -- my then-five siblings, parents and me -- and we children all fell in love with our housekeeper Thelma because, for us, she epitomized the love my Mom hadn't yet learned to give.

Mom had been orphaned at the age of six, and shunted around among relatives who didn't really want her, so she had to learn on her own about building a cohesive, loving family. Her idea back then was that ladies didn't actually pay much attention to their children; they went to bridge club and the like most of the time.

So, that's why we loved Thelma so much. That huge chocolate-colored woman with a few teeth missing in a smile that seemed to stretch across her whole face, would arrive every morning with sweets and 'surprises'. She'd scoop up two of us kids at a time, in the biggest old hug, and we'd melt into her. At nap time every day, she'd draw the three of us who weren't toddlers all onto her lap together, and croon us to sleep. She put us down in batches of 'the little kids' and 'the big kids'. My brother, sister and I were the big kids.

Thelma and her husband James owned the little home they lived in, and an investment home in Palm Beach for extra income. James would cut our grass on his off days from work.

And, though Thelma could cook like a dream, she absolutely refused to let anyone in her kitchen, let alone teach us how to cook. I can't begin to tell you how much that wonderful woman's love meant to us. Sixty-five years later, we still tear up remembering her, as we do every single time we get together.

Later, as my Dad got transferred in his job with Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., we had other maids in other places, but no one ever lived up to Thelma.

Of course, in those years, white society said that black people and white people had distinct places, and they were meant to be kept separate and unequal. Black people saw it differently, of course, and the turbulence began when I was a little girl. (I don't mean the injustice began then; it began centuries before.)

We didn't talk about it, but I'd see the MovieTone newsreels and TV reports about the hideous hosing of black children trying to go to school with white kids. I'll never forget the horror I felt then. The white people in those films were as vicious as the dogs they used to intimidate those poor children.

We'd see, of course, the separate facilities for black people and white and I began to wonder why that was. too.

Then, in 1959 (five years before the Civil Rights Act), I entered high school in one of the nation's first integrated classes. It's as clear in my memory as it was in life, then. We were all, black kids and white, excited to be part of this new thing, but so very scared of messing it up by making some mistake with a comment or accidentally brushing against each other. It could be anything inadvertent that they or us might commit because we had been raised to think it was normal.

With the grace of God, though, it all went without incident in that first momentous year of integration at Norfolk Catholic High School, and we went on to subsequent years -- learning to get along with, if not really understand, each other.

The years went by and, although conditions changed dramatically, attitudes didn't keep up. And that's where we are today.

I didn't cause the horrible things and the attitudes I inherited but, as I processed it all over the years, I vowed to do everything I could to make it better. And I do, celebrating the courage of my sheroes -- Xernona Clayton , founder of the Trumpet Awards, who drove Dr. King to the airport when he flew to Memphis, Tn. and the end of his life. Miss Xernona still lives in Atlanta and I'm happy to say we've talked about things, and she knows how I revere her.

Then, there's Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a year younger than me, who persisted in applying to segregated Georgia State University, until the law said they had to take her. She and Hamilton Holmes walked through the doors there on January 9, 1961, and on into history.

Who do you suppose was her first inspiration to be a first-rate journalist, which she did? It was Brenda Starr! Young Charlayne would lie on the floor reading the Sunday funnies while her grandmother read the Atlanta Journal, Atlanta Daily World and the Atlanta Constitution. Ms. Hunter-Gault, who says her mother taught her that "dreams propel ambition', knows I'm featuring her as one example in my upcoming book, "Vision and Voices for Girls".

And there've been so many more -- not all women, of course, but I relate to them more.

Well, we'll all be dead someday, but our children and grandchildren will live on with whatever lessons we've instilled in them.

I say, let us be the generation our children can say made all the difference. Let's move ahead together, as hard as it'll be, and write our own chapter in history by learning to acknowledge the past -- face it head on --- and find a new way for a better America. If we don't lead the way, who will?