The n-word in Academia

Just as a person cannot be separated from their culture, a word cannot be separated from its meaning.
Despite how far removed a past is from the present- the past is doomed to repeat itself by those unwilling to acknowledge its existence.

The disenfranchisement of blacks have led us on a lifelong pilgrimage for power, in a society built off our constructed inferiority. In accordance to the racial ideology that founded this country, the “i” in “n*gger” is representative of any and all persons of African descent. For this reason this term embodies the impossibility of separating the political from the personal regarding racialized bodies of the United States. Thus, any attempt to shift the meaning of this term to be anything but toxic, is of impossible execution. The term is inherently poisonous, and poison is the kryptonite to progress.

While the presence of the “n” word has become an anticipated aspect of racialized popular culture, its presence in academia is largely under-discussed. The use of this term has made several uncomfortable cameos in my academic career, showcasing both an insensitivity and selective ignorance to the use of the term.

I took a course in American Literature as a second year graduate student, at a small liberal arts college. Looking over the syllabus I was very excited to see Charles chestnut and Alice Dunbar Nelson, not knowing that the discussions of their works would showcase a reality that I was not quite ready to embrace. My professor was a man of the majority who non chalantly dropped the n word multiple times in his lecture that contained lengthy quotes from the text. While the private reading of Chestnut’s work certainly posed discomfort, this discomfort heightened with the oral rendering of this word by my white professor. Moved by discomfort, I spoke with my teacher after class. He thanked me for bringing it to his attention, then questioned whether he was “doing an injustice to the words on the page” by not saying the n- word as it appeared in the text. While I can understand the wish to not tamper with the original efforts of an author-as much can be lost in translation, I would argue that any loss of this term would be a positive reinforcement. It is particularly troublesome to think of injustice to the words on a page in a higher regard than an injustice to the people in which the term derogatorily refers to.

This incident interestingly takes me back to an incident that took place during my senior year in my high school English class. In this English class I had the unfortunate experience of reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which was more like, the adventures in a racist and prejudice America told by the product of privilege.

My teacher decided that it would be entertaining to perform a dialogue featured in the novel. The dialogue occurs between Huck and runaway slave Jim, which interestingly is about dialect. In the exchange Huck misses Jim’s point and issues the remark: “you just can’t learn a nigger to argue.” My multicultural class hurled the n word across several oral performances of this dialogue. I found this attempt at entertainment offensive and at the expense of a sensitive topic of American history.

Driven by hurt and rage I wrote a letter to the principal which resulted in a meeting between the principal, my teacher and myself. My stance was one of offense on behalf of my status as an African American, and my instructor took a defensive stance. My instructor argued that the text is an excellent example of American literature and that his actions were not offensive because and I quote, “he is married to an African American.” Somehow the last comment, which I am sure was employed for credibility, made the entire situation worse. The fact that my former teacher, a man married to a black woman can see a racist text as essential to English literature, illustrates his disassociation with the dynamics of race. My instructor’s admittance to being half of an interracial union adds to the inappropriate nature of this encounter. It is highly problematic that interracial unions are presented as a form of immunity to a racist society perpetuated through prejudice behavior. Thus being married to, friends with, or related to a person of African descent does not detach you from the venom in your words, actions or thoughts. His assertions also staple him to the reality of his status as a racist in a racist society, in which he, a man of the majority, is placed in a position to further the disenfranchisement of minorities. Through fostering a racist text in a prejudice way to minority students, my instructor inadvertently teaches his students to view stereotypical images of themselves as comical.

In addition to how personally offensive this incident was, it was also politically problematic. Teaching students that the n word is entertaining, inappropriately waters down the legacy of the word in the timeframe in which the book was published. The softening of the blow through comic relief in Huck’s statement, “you just can’t learn a nigger to argue” deters from the reality that Huck feels above Jim. Thus ignoring the fact that Jim’s logically sound argument actually flies far beyond Huck’s level of understanding.

It is very hard for me to detach the use of the n word by whites from ideas of entitlement. As much of the white experience is anchored in privilege and entitlement, the use of the n word is no different. Members of the majority faction every ounce of history, not beneficial to ideas of their superiority as a lesser history labeled to reflect a minority faction (for example: black or women’s history). Through this often condescending factioning, such knowledge is solicited as needed- if at all. The use of the n-word by those of the majority does not stem from ignorance, it stems from a desire to selectively ignore the ugliness carried on the tongue of their ancestors. This just yet another means of contemporary society to belittle the reality of slavery and the damage this institution has thrust upon the descendants of slaves.

Despite its role as a derogatory title for persons of African descent, the presence of the “n” word in contemporary culture is unwavering. Contemporary society has attempted to dilute the meaning of this historically harmful word. This attempt by contemporary society makes me think of pulling hair from a scalp. Through this gesture, tes the hair is removed, but the scalp is both visibly and invisibly bruised from its abrasive removal.

Some will argue that “n*gger” was a term implemented to simply reference a person of African descent, and question where the issue lies. While I would certainly argue that black is beautiful, to be a “n*gger” or of Negro extraction, was to be of the lowest and basest form of existence. Thus, any attempts to reinvent this word positively, is not only foolish, but several steps backwards over bodies slain in pursuit of progress for those of African descent.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Very nice article, just what I wanted to find.

  2. You have a wonderful blog here and I could not agree more with this post if I tried! Thank you!

    1. Thank you! I’m enjoying yours as well. 🙂

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