Talking About the N-word

Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor

It was my second semester on the tenure track when a white student used the n-word in my classroom.  It was not meant as a slur. Instead, they were showing enthusiastic support for my lecture about exclusion and national belonging.  I illustrated with a PowerPoint slide of an 1850s letter written to Frederick Douglass’ Paper. The letter, written by an African American correspondent from San Francisco, disparaged Chinese laborers using much of the same language that whites used to demean Black folks—“filthy, immoral and licentious.”[1] In response to the slide, a student raised their hand, and I called on them.  “Have you seen Blazing Saddles?” they asked. “Um, yes,” I answered, confused, and continued the lecture. “No wait,” they interrupted and then recited: “We’ll take the niggers and the chinks, but we don’t want the Irish.” Whoa.  “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I said, begging them to stop. “Oh, no,” they said, clarifying.  “It’s just a joke.  From Blazing Saddles.” And then they repeated it.

“What does the imperdent nigger mean, my love.” Edward Clay, “Life in Philadelphia”: A Dead Cut, published by S. Hart, 1829. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

“What does the imperdent nigger mean, my love.” Edward Clay, “Life in Philadelphia”: A Dead Cut, published by S. Hart, 1829. Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

When the students left, I stood in the room, stunned. Had I, an African American woman teaching at a predominantly white institution just let a white student blurt out an n-bomb and a ch-bomb without intervening? The next time we met, I apologized. Then I announced my new policy: Whether the n-word appeared in popular culture or in historical narratives, I didn’t want people saying it in the classroom.  Feeling totally dissatisfied and vulnerable, I went on with the day’s lecture.  Nobody said the n-word again that semester, but we didn’t grapple with its violence or ideological underpinnings either.

Previously, it hadn’t occurred to me that as a nineteenth-century U.S. historian I’d have to establish a policy about how my students and I would engage the n-word.  Nevertheless, it was unavoidable especially when teaching about slavery, racial identity, black activism, white supremacy, and/or anti-blackness, all themes in my courses. The word appears in historical accounts as well as in the letters, editorials, memoirs, and other writings by whites and African Americans. It also plays a major role in literary and visual cultural productions from the period.

The word’s ubiquity in the past and the present made it clear that simple censorship was a weak solution. Instead, I needed to teach the n-word by talking about it.  On the first day of class, I set the stage, explaining I want to keep the classroom n-word free until halfway through the semester when we discuss it. (In the meantime, it still appears in slides and in readings). About mid-semester, I reserve two consecutive periods in my lecture classes of roughly 40 students.  I wait to have the conversation because it’s hollow if the students don’t trust each other and me. In fact, the students are cautious anyway—white students are afraid of unconsciously revealing their racism, and students of color are afraid I won’t protect them from misguided comments.  To that end, before the halfway point, students conduct several collaborative/group exercises to build trust.  When we do get started, the first of the two n-word classes is more academic. I illustrate the nineteenth-century history of the word by giving a lecture drawing from the research in my 2016 JER article. I also assign Frederick Douglass’s powerful 1846 letter to William Lloyd Garrison in which Douglass compared the United States unfavorably to Great Britain.  In it, Douglass repeated nine times a phrase he likens to a mantra of white Americans, “we don’t allow niggers in here.”[2] My aim is to help students define a word that they don’t fully understand.

This mock almanac, indicts the presence of African American men in public. From the cover of The De Darkie’s Comic All-Me-Nig (Boston: James Fisher, 1846). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

This mock almanac, indicts the presence of African American men in public. From the cover of The De Darkie’s Comic All-Me-Nig (Boston: James Fisher, 1846). Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

For the grittier second class, I assign readings, usually Randall Kennedy’s “’Who Can Say ‘Nigger’?… And Other Considerations,” and Emily Bernard’s beautiful personal reflection “Teaching the N-Word: A Black Professor, an All-White Class, and the Thing Nobody Will Say.”[3] I also set guidelines.  I remind everyone about the n-word policy. More importantly, I emphasize that black students are not, by virtue of race, experts about the n-word.  Then, I begin with a general question: Should we or should we not use the word in the classroom? Although the conversations are mostly student driven, I do intervene. I ask questions and prod students to dig more deeply.  If all goes well, students will generously guide the conversation themselves. One year, a white student who was older than others in the class urged their classmates to “buck up,” arguing that not saying the n-word was a way to “police” free speech.  I was about to jump in when an African American student reminded this classmate that, in point of fact, the n-word itself was fundamentally about policing, specifically about policing black mobility and African American free expression.

The conversation does sometimes become entangled with theoretical ideas about free speech (ask me another time to talk about what I call the “Voldemort Thesis”). What continues to surprise me, however, is how students are compelled to share their personal stories. In fact most, no matter their racial identity, are twisted up and unnerved by the word.  One year, a black student from South Carolina said that the word didn’t bother them because while growing up, whites used it freely, including teachers and administrators.  Later, during office hours they admitted that the language hurt a lot. A white student confessed that they stood by doing nothing while a group of older boys used the word to bully and demean one of the only African American students at the school.  It was a guilt the student still carried.  Some white students arrogantly believe they do no harm by singing along with popular hip-hop lyrics.  Others tell how a black friend endowed them with the “n-word badge,” that is, special permission to say the word. Many black students share that when their black family and friends speak the n-word it is familiar and empowering and sounds wholly different from the word white people say (the historical evidence supports this). Meanwhile, the bulk of the students tell a version of a troubling tale of being in high school and reading out loud the works of Mark Twain, William Faulkner or even Zora Neale Hurston.  When the n-word appeared in the literature, their teachers forced them to 1) skip the word, 2) say the word, or 3) choose for themselves.  No matter the approach, the teacher rarely discussed why someone would single out this word at all.  Nor did they discuss the history of the word, its brutality, its historical roots in slavery, its continued threat of imminent violence, and its powerful subversion when used by black people. As the student stories unfolded, I discovered that the n-word not only represented a national trauma, but for many of them, a profoundly personal one.

Initially, I was terrified of this work.  Somehow, it seemed childish or unprofessional to spend so much time on a word.  But I saw immediately that my students were hungry for it. I learned that ALL students bring to the classroom space, to varying degrees, a racial awkwardness and trauma symbolized by their engagement with the n-word.  Refusing to confront it both replicates its violence and ignores what is true: The word is old but inflicts new wounds. Keeping quiet forces students of color to feel like they have to fend for themselves, and white students to feel vulnerable and trapped by their own ignorance. Instead, every semester, to varying degrees of success, we have messy conversations, raucous debates, and astounding moments of revelation.  By the end, most students tend to agree.  There’s a layered story lurking beneath that single word, one that makes the history come alive in new and relevant ways.  They also agree that, in the classroom, it’s less important whether one says the actual word or its euphemistic counterpart.  What is critical is taking the time to talk about the n-word, a word that is at the center of U.S. racial history and debate, but somehow one rarely considered in the classroom.


Endnotes

[1] Nubia (“Our San Francisco Correspondent”) to Frederick Douglass, 28 February 1855, published in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, 6 April 1855.

[2]Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, “The Etymology of Nigger: Resistance, Language, and the Politics of Freedom in the Antebellum North,” in Journal of the Early Republic, 36 (Summer 2016), 203–245, and Frederick Douglass to William Lloyd Garrison, 1 January 1846, published in The Liberator, 30 January 1846.

[3] Randall Kennedy, “Who Can Say ‘Nigger’?” in Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 26 (Winter, 1999–2000), 86–96; and Emily Bernard, “Teaching the N-Word,” in American Scholar, 1 September 2005.  Another helpful resource for this discussion is The Washington Post’s provocative interactive “The N-Word: An Interactive Project Exploring a Singular Word.”  It is a series of frank conversations between about the word. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dre/features/the-n-word

15 May 2017

About the Author

Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor is Assistant Professor of History at Smith College.

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