If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that students will always surprise you.
A few weeks ago I was spending most of my time conducting oral exams for my russ students. Because oral exams are easier to double team, my co-teacher Maria and I had a nice system set up where I would lead the students in discussions, while Maria took notes on their performance. My task was simple: students had to choose cards from a stack and then discuss whatever prompt was written on the back of the card. My job was to keep the discussion going and to try and make sure the students were showcasing what they’d learned during the course of the year (this was harder for some hungover russ students than others). While some of the students gave pretty standard answers to the discussion prompts, some really went above and beyond. The prompt that generated the most original thinking? This one:
In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the word “nigger” is used repeatedly. What connotation (meaning, association) does it have in the novel?
Today, has the meaning of “nigger” changed? How do you feel about the n-word? Is this a word you use? When do you use it?
Should blacks be able to use the word nigger in ways forbidden to others? Why or why not?
Now I’ve struggled a bit with the n-word and other derogatory words, such as faggot, this year. For many non-Americans, these words don’t necessarily seem problematic. However, when they are used around me, I find it hard not to flinch.
For those of you who are less familiar with the n-word, or “nigger,” I thought I’d give you a short history of the word. The word comes from the Latin word “niger,” meaning black. It acquired its notoriety in the 17th century beginning with the Atlantic Slave Trade. Since then, it has generally been used in America as a demeaning word; one that is laced with hatred. It has been used in a number of ways and has appeared in many different forms, some more controversial than others. It’s common for American high school students to struggle through Mark Twain’s famous 1884 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and to skirt, stutter, and attempt to avoid the novel’s many references to Jim, a saintly and kind slave, as a “nigger.” More recently, the rapper Nas tried to name his 2008 album “Nigger” but changed the title to “Untitled” due to pressure from leaders in the African American community. The National Football League (NFL) even tried to ban the word in 2014.
While my students were all correctly able to explain the n-word’s dark past, they struggled a bit more with the question of whether the meaning has changed and who should be allowed to use the word. Many of them talked about the word “nigga,” a derivative of the n-word that is usually interpreted to mean something like “bro” or “dude.” Most of my students argued that the usage of either “nigga” or “nigger” by African Americans was a way of taking ownership of the word, or limiting the power of the word to hurt, something that linguists call semantic inversion (other examples of this would include the gay community’s usage of words like “queer” and “dyke”). If you want a more thorough overview of either word I’d recommend this article on The Washington Post.
Where my students tended to differ was on who could use either version of the n-word. For some context was key, while for others the context didn’t matter. For some race also played a role, while for others it was irrelevant. To this day, the answer is far from clear in the US, and it is one that is argued about both inside and outside of the African American community. But I have to say that I was impressed with how critically my students were thinking about the word–something that is not always the case, as I’ve found out from living in international student housing.
And while discussing the history of the n-word and its usage was enjoyable, the part of the exam prompt that I enjoyed the most was having my students examine the use of the n-word in To Kill a Mockingbird (the rest of this is full of spoilers and will probably make more sense if you’ve read the book). All of my students were able to correctly tell me that the word is almost universally hurled as an insult by the book’s white population. The word comes up repeatedly and is even discussed within the context of the book. Atticus, the father of the protagonist, is the first person to tell the heroine, Scout, not to use the word, and makes it clear that it’s a “trashy” insult. From then on both Scout and her older brother Jem begin to take issue with the word, specifically when it comes to their father being critiqued for defending a “nigger” and being a “nigger-lover.”
What really made me proud however was when a few students were able to go a bit more in-depth and examine how the word is used by the African Americans in the book.* The only times that it is directly used is when Jem and Scout are brought to the local black church and during Tom Robinson’s trial. Both times the word is used to draw a distinction between the town’s black population and the town’s white population, and it is only used in a self deprecating way. It’s most powerful usage is probably when Tom Robinson explains why he ran away from a white woman trying to kiss him: “if you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared, too.” It’s the color of Tom Robinson’s skin that makes these advances troubling for the town’s population, what makes it impossible for the town’s jury to fully believe Robinson’s story, and ultimately what leads to his death. Robinson’s conscious decision to use a racial slur in his explanation perfectly captures how he is put in a life threatening situation purely based on the color of his skin. Having my students come to that conclusion on their own, and to even have one say “I never thought of it that way” was one of my teaching highlights for the year.
The n-word and other slurs have been something that has repeatedly popped up in my year here. I’ve heard many people use these words without thinking anything of it, and I’m sad to say that part of this definitely comes from the mass consumption of American media. They hear these words in American music and on American TV shows, and oftentimes it seems as though few stop to think about the history behind these words, the power of these words to wound, or to even care about these things. In fact, I’ve even had people argue that because they aren’t American or because English is their second language, that their usage of derogatory words is different and allowable, simply because it is placed outside of an American or native English speaking context. It’s something that I disagree with and something that I’ve struggled to explain this year. And although this topic generally has had me feeling a bit melancholy, I was incredibly proud of my students for taking the time to think critically about at least the n-word. I definitely left my class with a smile on my face.
*It also just made me happy since it showed that they had actually read the book.