U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Teaching the N-Word

*Updated April 8, 2011
[I wrote about this generally, in relation to the new edition of Huck Finn, a few months ago here. It went from general to very specific very fast.] I post it here because it is about the power and significance of language.

Yesterday in class, I addressed a recent event on campus–a poster was found on the front door of the UK law school saying “How do you spell Nigger? Obama.” A white student reported the poster and the police started to investigate. Sixteen students led a protest last week against this event and others. In class, I addressed why the N-word is so offensive even when some blacks use it to address themselves, friends, and black strangers. I also asked why so few students had come out to protest.


The day’s class was meant to be devoted to a panel on “Sports, Race, and Human Rights” hosted by sports reporter Chip Cosby. He had put it together last semester and we video-taped it. One of the guests was  Dr. Boyce Watkins, a national figure who speaks often in the media about the financial aspects of sports (he was named the top American undergrad in Finance by the US News and World Report when he was a senior at UK). He spoke about when he was at UK as an undergrad. A black student, Tanya Clay, wrote into the school newspaper to support Watkins’ column. She said it was difficult for black students at UK, but that Watkins understood and people should listen to him (most letters vilified him). Two students cornered Clay in the building I teach in, held a knife to her throat, and told her she could leave if she wasn’t happy. When she went to the president, he asked her to not publicize it because UK was in the Final Four. There were too many parallels between this event and the recent events not to bring them up.

One of my students explained why only 16 students had shown up–there is a rule at UK that only 20 students can assemble in protest at one time. Any more than that and they risk jeopardizing their degrees and their status as students. I was completely horrified. Is that rule common? Do you know if any of your universities have that rule? The administration, minus the president, did come out to hear the students’ concerns, but the fact that there were so few students involved meant that very few other students knew about the event.

When Watkins was here in the 90s, he organized a silent protest in front of the administration building every day for a month. Hundreds of students participated and changes were finally made. One of them was a call for more black faculty, yet Watkins noted that the numbers of black faculty on campus are about the same as they were when he was here. From my position within the administration, I know that there are many reasons that it is difficult to hire black faculty. As a friend of some of those black faculty, I also know that it can be hard to live in Lexington (some say they have faced a lot of racism here, some say they like it here).

If you look at the Herald Leader story about the protest, the comments fall in a few directions. One is that the students should find something more useful to do with their time–i.e. a poster with a racial epithet is not a significant enough thing to protest. In particular, this was because the N-word is supposedly used by blacks all the time and so there should be Another was that Obama is the worst president ever not because of his race, but because of his policies (and yet those posters don’t say a thing about the use of the racial epithet). And then a few commenters decry the poster and laud the protesters.

I took these positions as representative of my class as well. I decided that the particular way I wanted to take on the issue was explain the significance of the N-word to all students (my class is much more diverse than normal UK or other Big-Ten classrooms. It is about 1/3 black). As I was pondering how to do this, I listened to last week’s Moth podcast on one of my walks. It is by the comedian Anthony Griffith, who suffered through his 2 year old daughter’s cancer at the exact moment that his comedy career was starting to take off. When the doctor tells him his daughter has 6 weeks to live, he is grief stricken and ready to break. Instead he hears Denzel Washington in his head, saying “Man up Nigga!” to motivate himself to carry on. It is one of the most powerful stories The Moth has broadcast because of the raw emotion and the intense way Griffith is able to communicate it.

I played the podcast for them and then we talked about why he would have used that term then. Was it from a place of deep emotion? Self-criticism or self-hatred? To motivate himself? I use the clicker system in class, and most students said deep emotion or motivation. I suggested that there might be an element of calling himself names in order to motivate himself (when I told the class that I do that and how, they laughed). A white and black student both shared what they had heard in the podcast. I think it was perhaps more powerful for the students than a discussion of hip hop would have been. I’ll be interested to see if any of the students take it on in their weekly blogs.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren,

    I’ve never heard of a 20 student limit at any of my past institutions, though I confess also to not knowing all of the student affairs/orgs rules at each. Still, common sense says that’s unusually restrictive.

    Are you using this post to help explain, or posit a reason for, a lack of intellectual diversity at UK? Or is it just a case that diversity, particularly AF-Am diversity, is not respected at UK?

    – TL

  2. We certainly have no such rule at OU. And as far as I know no other institution I’ve been at has had one, either.

    On the face of it, I’m kind of surprised that a rule like that would pass constitutional muster. Has it ever been tested in court?

  3. Tim,

    When I called UK PR to find out what the administrative reaction to the event was, they said that “UK respects diversity” is precisely what they told everyone. I think like most things, hiring African American faculty is a difficult thing to discuss because so many of the decisions are opaque and not recorded.

    My particular point in posting this was because it’s been the thing I’ve been thinking about the most this week. I found it difficult to figure out how to teach the recent protest in comparison to the older one, without the recent one being overshadowed (no knives were involved). I should write out the rest of the story of what I decided to do. I ended up posting this in the midst of a very busy afternoon.

  4. We have no such rule at the University where I am, Penn State University, in the U.S.A. The more
    students administrators see protesting, the more importance the situation is given, especially if the group of students are diverse.
    As for the “N” word, many young students today have no idea about its initial connotation. I am an African American woman and I do not condone the usage of the word at all. To use it to describe the President of the U.S. or anyone, is disrespectful, and only an immature spirit would do so in this day and age. I appreciate you trying to raise awareness. If we can’t do so on the grounds of higher learning, then no one will learn. -Dr. Denise Hinds-Zaami

  5. I’ve spent more than half my life dedicated to the study of N-Word variants, including; Nigger, nigger, Negro, negro, Niggah, Nigguh, Nigga, Nigritian, Nigrecian, GER (Hebrew variants for :Stranger; Book of Genesis, Old Testament) and varients in between. Only my cowardice has prevented publication of my findings over the past two+ decades in academia. I also have generous respect and empathy for those who find such need to rebuke use of the term although my position form a scholarly point of view is 180 degrees in opposition to such censorial taboo or bannishment: I AM (PROUDLY) Niggah For Life. However I must caution that my Niggah Identity is as steeped in philosophical universality as it is rooted in the temporally recent but forgotten phenomenon of Racism & slavery in America vis a vis Human History. From A-Z in my research of broad swaths of topics and disciplines, I rarely if ever find a theoretical position that does not buttress my intuited view that is founded early on recognition that modern life (past 5 centuries) is based precisely on deceiving persons in their orientations to good/bad, North/South, Left/Right, Right/Wrong, Up/Down, Heaven/Hell, Knowledge/Ignorance, Vanity, Blame, etc. To locate the word in American history is a quite thin or shallow interpretation but I can say that the N-Word (both the post-vocalic ‘er’ and adjective version used by White speakers and the robust noun form with its many many inflected varieties) exists in a literal attribution of reality far more than does the Emancipation Proclamation, though the former is an abstract label for a person, place, and thing; while the latter is a thing of largely abstract value and misrepresentative at that–a red herring at minimum and ruse to say the least. That our society, including my Descendent of Slavery Brothers and Sisters (especially those who are members of academia or the intelligentia) is so swamped in the pariah, vilification, self-hate da nigger, kill-the-nigger complex is not surprising at all in light of the language and milieu in which this nation evolved. Nothing surprizes me more except the works of many White people throughout history who have shown the virtue and courage to stand against the inhumanity directed toward those who prefer to distance themselves from slavery, and their own Ethnicity (Slave Descendents), Blackness, and/or Africanity. While my view is not easily fitted in the Politics of Politeness paradigm where asymetrical relations of power are forbidden the Right to be contested in language and sometimes even conceptual expression; and nor is my view easily considered Politically Correct except among those who generally inhabit the lowest rungs of socio-economic life chances and quality, I would challenge any historian, psychologist, philosopher, sociologist, or other representative to of law, politics, government, etc. to debate the real issues inherent in this important, benchmarking, cornerstone and foundational word in English and human conceptuality. Frantz Fanon’s critique of the Master/Slave (so-called) Dialectic is an important starting point toward understanding the epistemic blindspots that occlude most all Westerners from seeing beyond the immediate perceptions even when attempting to make the “subjectively objective” inquiry beyond the obvious. My name would be Captive Cargo Slave Niggah X but for now I can be reached by writing [email protected].

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