Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The N-Word Presentation

I developed this sample presentation for a course on "othering."  It is designed to both model how I'd like students to construct their own presentations throughout the semester and also to introduce them to some of the controversial issues that will arise as they read and discuss Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The presentation brings up some important issues for teachers to consider--what are the consequences of using this term in the classroom or of avoiding the term?

I've posted the rough script below.  Follow along with the visual part of the presentation at:

Page 1
N-Word Controversy—more apt title might be N-Word Controversies
Used as my cover image a pic of Malcolm X, a man who gave a lot of thought to this word
According to a treatise that he wrote for the Organization of Afro-American Unity in his final years, decided that it must be rejected in all of its forms
So, going to turn it over to you
Will ask you to think about whether this word should ever be uttered in today’s world
If so, who has the right to say it?
When should it be said?
Should it be printed in classic literary texts?
Finally, how should we handle this issue as we encounter the term in our own classroom?
Disclaimer—I use term “n-word” when reading aloud, but I have printed the actual word in the text of the presentation

Page 2
Going to start by talking a little bit about the word's orgins, specifically how it came to be used in the US
N-word derived from the Latin “niger,” meaning “black,” according to an entry in the OED
More importantly, became derogatory in the US as African-Americans became quintessential others
Read quote
Remember our definition of othering—projecting negative traits onto another human or group of humans in order to imagine that you don’t possess those traits and then treating them as inferior to reinforce your own superiority
This is exactly how white colonists used n-word—to show that they were superior to another group, to other and oppress

Page 3
Many ask, why is this one word so incredibly offensive, maybe more so than any other in the English language?
Let’s follow the flow chart here
In American, at least, it all started with slavery
Here we have a poster, offering a monetary reward for the return of human property
Read poster
Evidence of people hunted like animals, forced to serve others in ways that we don’t want to even imagine, and regarded as little more than part of white people’s larger estate
Next, after abolition, freed slaves were forced to continue to serve white people, despite their legal “freedom”—as cooks, caregivers, maids, farm-hands
Disallowed opportunities for education, social advancement, political activism
Any attempts at uplift were met with violence
Were continued to be treated as others in order to reinforce superiority of white people
Here we have an example of segregation—a “colored” water fountain, where black people were forced to drink water separately from white people because white people could not bear the thought of putting their lips near a metal piece that black people might also put their touch with their mouths
Finally, in the present day, we only have to look at incarceration statistics to know that racism continues

There were more than five times as many black men in jail than white men in 2006 according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.
We know that this is partly due to the continued limited opportunities available to black men and partly due to the stricter penalties enacted on black men vs. white men
So, why is this word so offensive?
Aha! I know.
It has everything to do with othering
It is because this word represents how black men and women have been othered throughout American history, it has been used to reinforce the inferiority of black men and women for centuries
A clip from YouTube shows this legacy of oppression well-- show segments 0-53, 1:24-2:05, 2:50-4:56

Page 4
The history of othering and oppression that my flow chart and the video show are very convincing in suggesting that the word should just never be spoken
On the other hand, some insist that we should say the word in appropriate contexts, in order to diffuse its power over us
Emily Bernard writes about a series of discussions that she had with her college-aged students about the word
Most refused to say it, but some agreed with her that it should be spoken
In The N-Word, a documentary produced by Andy Cohen, comedian Dick Gregory goes a step further, saying that we are actually allowing a white racist system to erase a history of oppression if we stop saying the word that represents that oppression.
Certainly, we don’t want our silence to amplify or erase a history of othering

Page 5
In the past few decades, black men and women have attempted to rehabilitate the n-word, or the different forms of it that I’ve printed on this pageWe know that lots of people today use it as a way of identifying fellowship or brotherhood among black people or even just close friends
OED even recognizes this positive form of the word’s usage
We see this in the media with figures like Laurence Fishborne, film director, who admits to using the term within close circles of friends on the documentary The N-Word
Nicki Minaj uses the term a total of 35 times in just one song, entitled “N.I.G.G.A.S.,” which laments the current oppression of black men in this country
And she actually references the problem that I talked about a few minutes ago—that many black men are given very little opportunity for social advancement and end up incarcerated in numbers that are not proportionate to the number of white men who are imprisoned for the same crimes
It is as if she is using this word—which some would say carries with it a history of oppression—to unite the black community in continuing “hold on” and “keep tryin,'” as the lyrics to the song say
Then we have Sean Combs and Ludacris who also use the word in their music as a way of indicating fellowship or closeness with other black men
Samuel L. Jackson says on The N-Word that he insists that all who work with him know upfront that he is an n-word
Using the word in slightly different way—to indicate that he is tough and not afraid to fight for what he believes in
Then we have Katt Williams who uses the term liberally in stand-up
Use of n-word by black people themselves started to gain national attention in the 1970s when Richard Pryor began to do it in his comedy routines
Used it in a positive way, as a way of showing affection between family members, brotherhood between men—much like all of these contemporary figures do
Ironically, after pretty much single-handedly managing to take the use of this word mainstream, Pryor renounced his use of the term in the late 80s.
According to Hilton Als, Pryor came to the conclusion that “to call one's brother a 'nigger'" is to describe one's own "wretchedness’”

Page 6
Now going to turn to the use of the word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Ranked #14 on the American Library Association’s list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books for the decade of 2000-2009Reason cited is racism
Book actually uses word total of 219 times
Might have something to do with it
Because of the history of oppression and othering that comes with this word, it can make the book very difficult to read, even at the college level
Going to quote from an article that you are going to read for this class in a couple of weeks
This section of the article is written from the perspective of a non-traditional student—African-American woman, on her experience of reading Huck Finn
Had just returned to college
Excited to have opportunity to read this classic that she had never read
Read quote
Interesting that she refers to Malcolm X here, man who believed in procuring dignity of black men and women through eradication of n-word, in her lamentation of its use in this American classic
If it is this painful for a grown woman to read this word, imagine effects on a child

Page 7
This is why, in 2011, publisher NewSouth introduced edited versions of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Replaced "n-word" with "slave"
Here are some reasons that Professor Alan Gribben gave during NPR’s Talk of the Nation last January for agreeing to edit the two texts in this way
Says that this edition is for young children who would not get to read the book otherwise because of the ways that the book has been censored
Says that Twain might well have adapted to this change, since this author was particularly known for changing his opinions about matters throughout his life
And, finally, says that this edition does not change the central concept of the book, only makes it more tolerable for those sensitive to a particular word
It would appear that Professor Gribben should get a gold star, right?

Page 8
Well, except for the fact that the new edition has caused public and scholarly outrage
One commentator on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday compared the editing out of the n-word in Huck Finn to the covering of the bloody figures in Picasso’s “Guernica” with band-aids
Picasso painted “Guernica” to protest the bombing of Guernica, Spain by German and Italian warplanes during the Spanish Civil War
Meant to show suffering that war causes
To put band-aids over the gashes in this scene would not only deface this classic, evocative work of art, but it would also cover over a history of suffering that we should remember
Similarly, Simon is saying that to change "slave" for the n-word in Huck Finn is to tamper with a work of art and also to deny the oppression and othering that this word connotes
It is both silly and unwise

Page 9
Time is ticking
Now is when you decide what you believe and how you will handle this issue
We’ve looked at figures like Malcolm X and Richard Pryor, who insist that the use of this term is harmful
People like Nicki Minaj, who see it as a way of uniting black men and women and fighting oppression
Seen how it can be hurtful to people when read in classic texts like Huck Finn
Learned how others insist that we must keep it and talk about it in order to remember a history of oppression
What do you think?
Maybe take three comments on one small part of this issue, most important to us, how we should handle this in the classroom
Each extreme and in the middle
Clearly a provocative topic
My hope is that discussion of it can bring us together instead of divide us

Page 10
Works Cited

No comments:

Post a Comment