Using The N Word Essay
To understand fully, however, the depths and intensities, quirks and complexities of American race relations, it is necessary to know in detail the many ways in which racist bigotry has manifested itself, been appealed to, and been resisted. The term "nigger" is in most contexts, a cultural obscenity. But, so, too are the opinions of the United States Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which ruled that African Americans were permanently ineligible for federal citizenship, and Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled that state-mandated, "equal but separate" racial segregation entailed no violation of the federal constitution. These decisions embodied racial insult and oppression as national policy and are, for many, painful to read. But teachers rightly assign these opinions to hundreds of thousands of students, from elementary grades to professional schools, because, tragically, they are part of the American cultural inheritance. Cultural literacy requires detailed knowledge about the oppression of racial minorities. A clear understanding of "nigger" is part of this knowledge. To paper over that term or to constantly obscure it by euphemism is to flinch from coming to grips with racial prejudice that continues to haunt the American social landscape.
Leading etymologists believe that "nigger" was derived from an English word "neger" that was itself derived from "Negro", the Spanish word for black. Precisely when the term became a slur is unknown. We do know, however, that by early in the 19th century "nigger" had already become a familiar insult. In 1837, in The Condition of the Colored People of the United States; and the Prejudice Exercised Towards Them, Hosea Easton observed that "nigger" "is an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race The term itself would be perfectly harmless were it used only to distinguish one class from another; but it is not used with that intent it flows from the fountain of purpose to injure."
The term has been put to other uses. Some blacks, for instance, use "nigger" among themselves as a term of endearment. But that is typically done with a sense of irony that is predicated upon an understanding of the terms racist origins and a close relationship with the person to whom the term is uttered. As Clarence Major observed in his Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970), "used by black people among themselves, [nigger] is a racial term with undertones of warmth and goodwill reflecting a tragicomic sensibility that is aware of black history." Many blacks object, however, to using the term even in that context for fear that such usage will be misunderstood and imitated by persons insufficiently attuned to the volatility of this singularly complex and dangerous word.
Some observers object even to reproducing historical artifacts, such as books or cartoons, that contain the term "nigger." This total, unbending objection to printing the word under any circumstance is by no means new. Writing in 1940 in his memoir The Big Sea, Langston Hughes remarked that "[t]he word nigger to colored people is like a red rag to a bull. Used rightly or wrongly, ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesnt matter. Negroes do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic in its treatment of the basic problems of the race. Even though the book or play is written by a Negro, they still do not like it. The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America."
Given the power of "nigger" to wound, it is important to provide a context within which presentation of that term can be properly understood. It is also imperative, however, to permit present and future readers to see for themselves directly the full gamut of American cultural productions, the ugly as well as the beautiful, those that mirror the majestic features of American democracy and those that mirror Americas most depressing failings.
For these reasons, I have advised the management of HarpWeek to present the offensive text, cartoons, caricatures and illustrations from the pages of Harper's Weekly, as well as other politically sensitive nineteenth-century material, as they appeared in their historical context. This same advice holds for slurs relating to Irish, Chinese, Germans, Native Americans, Catholics, Jews, Mormons and other ethnic and religious groups.
Nigger (also spelled niggar): a word that is an alteration of the earlier neger, nigger derives from the French negre, from the Spanish and Portuguese negro, from the Latin niger (black). First recorded in 1587 (as negar), the word probably originated with the dialectal pronunciation of negro in northern England and Ireland.
--Anti-Bias Study Guide, Anti-Defamation League, 1998
In the United States, "nigger" was first regarded as pejorative in the early nineteenth century. In the era of enslavement, the words "nigger" or "black" were inserted in front of a common American first name (e.g., John), given to a slave to distinguish the slave from any local white person with the same name. While usage of the word in African American culture is complex in that it can be used affectionately, politically, or pejoratively, the epithet is considered an abusive slur when used by white people. Langston Hughes in The Big Sea (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1940) offered an eloquent commentary:
Used rightly or wrongly, ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn't matter. Negroes do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic in its treatment of the basic problems of the race. Even though the book or play is written by a Negro, they still do not like it. The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America.
The word has gained more acceptance in recent years in youth culture through song lyrics and stand-up comedy. Some claim that the word can be defused through reclaiming it. However, most adults continue to view the word as offensive and harmful.
In the Classroom
Whether in the context of Huck Finn or in any other text in which the word is used, "nigger" raises a number of concerns for both teachers and students when it is used in a classroom setting. When the issues surrounding the word have not been previously addressed in the classroom, it "changes everything," according to parent Danny Elmore. "Five seconds before that word is used, everyone in class might have been your friend. But now you're reassessing yourself, and they're reassessing you. It has a profound effect. Nothing is the same after it is used."
The feelings and reaction of students may depend on the demographics of the student population. In schools that are predominantly African American, students may feel more comfortable with the word, although not necessarily with its repeated use by white characters in a "classic" text. When African American students are in the minority, however, they often feel embarrassed and singled out. Said one African American student in Cherry Hill, "Every time the word came up [during oral reading], everybody turned around to look at me." It's equally important, however, to address the issue regardless of whether the class is racially mixed or homogeneous.
Different teachers handle the word in different ways. Some never use it, and will not allow students to use it. Instead, they skip over it or use a euphemism such as "the 'n' word." Here again race can be a factor. A white teacher, for instance, may be far more reluctant to use the word than a teacher of color, regardless of the class demographics. Nancy Methelis, the English teacher at Boston Latin School featured in the film Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, explains her decision not to use the word aloud in class:
Words are among the most powerful things there are. . . . A grown-up, middle-aged white woman using that word gives another level of meaning than a 15-year-old African American student. I think I could hurt students by using it, and I don't feel that my minority students want to hear their white peers use that word either. . . And if it turns out we're sacrificing a little academic rigor in the service of not adding to anyone's pain, maybe that's okay. . . .
In the film one of Methelis's students, Shantae, adds, "I hear it every day in school, but I just . . . kind of like the fact that [she] didn't use it in class." Chrissy Hayes, an African American student at Cherry Hill East High School, acknowledges that the word is problematic: "There's no way to completely ease the tension when they keep saying 'nigger, nigger, nigger' and you're the only one in the room it could apply to. But even if teachers say 'the n word' instead, it's written right there in the book, and everyone still reads it in their minds."
Kathy Monteiro, the mother in the film who wanted the book removed from the school's required reading list, says, "How can you ask kids to go home and read the word 'nigger' two hundred-something times in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and then expect kids to come back to school and not use the word?"
In deciding how to handle the word, consider how its use in the classroom -- reading it aloud or as part of assigned silent reading -- will affect students. Some educators believe that the word should be said and discussed openly. Professor Maghan Keita says, "Within the framework of the text, if you don't understand how that word can be used, that it's satire [in the case of Huck Finn] -- if you don't teach that, you've missed a teaching moment. Our task is to prepare students to think so that when confronted with these words in a text they can see what the author's intent is. What is the meaning of it in this text?"
Writer David Bradley agrees. "We cannot avoid being hurt. Language hurts people, reality hurts people. . . . If the word 'nigger' did not have meaning today we wouldn't care that it was in [Huck Finn]. The hurt is that it still does have meaning. . . . People sometimes think the book causes things. It only causes things if there are things there that are waiting to happen. If I go into a school or talk to a school administrator who says, well, gee, this book is going to cause all kinds of trouble, I'm going to say, you've already got trouble."
Some teachers may feel apprehensive about exploring racism and related issues. The following suggestions will help teachers deal with these or other emotionally charged issues. You may also want to inform parents in advance about how you will be approaching the use of the word in the classroom and in the book.
- Never assume of your students either 1) complete ignorance of and disdain for discussing race relations and cultural differences, or 2) complete awareness of and extreme willingness to discuss and better understand race relations and cultural differences.*
- You may want to ask the group to decide the format for discussion of these issues. (Anything said in the discussion session should not affect grades.) Depending on the demographics of your classroom, you may want to speak privately with African American students (or other students as needed) before beginning the unit.*
- Set ground rules for the discussion, such as no name-calling, no put-downs, and respect for all viewpoints. Do not press for a resolution of friction that may occur during the discussion of these issues. Students should be responsible for their words and actions.*
- No one individual or group should be expected to be spokespersons for their race, gender, socioeconomic group, political affiliation, or any other group.*
- Invite outside experts or community leaders to give other perspectives.
- Be honest with students about your own feelings, and explain to them why you want to explore the subject.
- If the class is initially hesitant to talk, try having students express their feelings through journal entries, free writing, or anonymous responses.
* Adapted from Fires in the Mirror: Essays and Teaching Strategies, WGBH, 1993.
Students may be shocked to hear "the 'N' word" used openly in the classroom. Prepare the class by explaining they are about to study a book that contains a pejorative term. To frame the discussion and to empower students to feel free to speak their thoughts and opinions, you may want to begin with a key question such as, "Huck Finn and many other works of literature contain the word 'nigger.' How should we deal with this in the classroom?" Emphasize that exploring the meaning and use of the word does not mean an acceptance or approval of the word. Use the following questions to help foster classroom discussion. You may also want to expand this discussion to explore the power of words when used as epithets.
- In general, who can or can't say the word? When, if ever, can it be said?
- How do you feel about the use of the word?
- Is the use of the word in the classroom different from its use outside the classroom?
- Is it different to read a text by an African American who uses it than it is to read it in a text by a non-African American? Why or why not?
- Does the use of the word in a "classic" literary work give it validity outside of the classroom? If so, how?
- Using readings that talk about the word "nigger" -- such as "Incident" by Countee Cullen (found in many poetry anthologies) -- can be an effective way for teachers to initiate discussion. Ask students how the word changes the poem, and how the sing-song rhythm of the poem is an ironic contrast to its overall meaning. Students might go further by writing their own version of the poem in which they tell a story of a time someone insulted them, whether with this word or another word, phrase, or gesture, and how it felt.
- Have students read The 'N' Word: It Just Slips Out by African American high school student Francis Allen. Afterward, students can write a letter to the author telling him their thoughts on his essay, relating their own experiences, or questioning Allen's feelings about the use of the word in Huck Finn.
Next: Section 2: Behind the Mask - Exploring Stereotypes
See also: Controversy at Cherry Hill