Approaching the "N-Word" in Teaching Classic Literature

The N-Word in Classic Literature


One of the most difficult aspects of teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnOf Mice and Men, and similar classic texts is how to appropriately and sensitively approach the repeated use of the “n-word” in the texts.

First and foremost - I HIGHLY recommend that you proactively have a conversation with your students BEFORE reading these and similar texts.  

Having students share their points of view of the word, and whether it is OK to say the word in class (i.e. for example when reading from the text aloud) is important to decide before reading. Additionally, I recommend finding out your school and/or district policies on approaching these texts to see if there are any parameters you must adhere to before teaching.  

Know that this particular conversation could be highly uncomfortable for your students (and possibly yourself), so set up the conversation by letting them know that you want to talk about this in a safe space, and that you will not tolerate any disrespect. Acknowledge that this is a sensitive subject and that (if it is true for you) that you also feel uncomfortable. In fact, you may wish to have an administrator or colleague trained in having these conversations -- or at the very least is on the same page as you are about the use of the word, so that you can have a diverse conversation.  

I had this conversation with every single class every single year I taught these texts with both freshman and seniors and every single time these students were respectful, and frankly, surprised me at how maturely they handled the subject.  

Every class was different, and some classes voted to say the euphemism of the “n-word” and others felt comfortable sticking to the text and saying the word when reading aloud ONLY, and never in-class discussion or writing. This made teaching smooth moving forward, and I never had any issues teaching these texts.

Treat your students as adults having a mature, compassionate, and inclusive conversation, and they may actually even handle this conversation better than most adults.

Below are two articles written by Earl Ofari Hutchingson on the topic. I recommend that you have your students read one or both of these articles and that you lead a whole-class conversation (not small groups) on the topic, then vote (must be unanimous) whether you will use the euphemism, say the word when reading aloud, or something else.  

*For printable handouts of these articles, CLICK HERE.*

YOU MUST be sure that EVERYONE votes and that all votes are counted and that the votes are unanimous. Do not move on until everyone agrees. If you are stuck, keep talking. If you have one student with an issue, DO NOT single that student out. Continue to have the discussion, including everyone. If you cannot reach a unanimous conclusion, you may want to hold off the conversation to the next day, after having a private conversation with the student. NEVER isolate the student, make them wrong for their feelings or point them out. Do not allow students to do this either. If there is a problem, simply look at the clock and let students know that you only allotted a certain time (be specific) for the discussion, and that you KNEW the conversation would need another day. 

Some options are to discuss the following:

  1. Discuss whether the word “n—r” is racist or just a part of a culture’s vocabulary.  
  2. After reading the articles, engage in a class discussion. Do you agree with Hutchinson? Should the N-word no longer be part of the English language? Why or why not?
  3. Is using a variant, like “Ni—ah” or “Ni—a” the same as “Ni—er”? Is any variation appropriate? Under what circumstances?  
  4. Is speaking it the same or different than reading it?
  5. Does the use of the word make it more understandable if it is said within a certain context, such as when a book was written? What about the context of within a group of people? Does that make it more or less acceptable?


Loaded Language

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Review of the book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word by Randall Kennedy, published by Pantheon

The Washington Post 

January 13, 2002

When I saw the title of Randall Kennedy's book Nigger, I immediately thought of a conversation I had with my son not long ago. I had overheard him greet a buddy who called him on the phone with "Yo nigger, what's up?" It wasn't the first time this had happened. In the past I ignored it. I knew it was the way many young blacks talked to each other -- the word is part of their hip jargon. They aren't particularly troubled by its odious significance. But this time I was.

I asked him why he used it. He shrugged and said that everybody does it. "Then what if one of your white friends calls you a nigger?" I asked. "Is that O.K.?" He was silent. We both knew that would not be acceptable. When any white person, especially a celebrity, athlete or public official, slips and uses the word or makes any other racist reference, they'll hear about it from outraged blacks.

Randall Kennedy, in his short, provocative but misguided polemic, denounces the double standard that my son and other young blacks apply to whites, and contends that "nigger" is hardly the earth-shattering, illegitimate word that many blacks and whites brand it. He is intrigued by the black comedians and rappers who sprinkle the word throughout their lyrics and comedy lines and by black writers and filmmakers who go through lengthy gyrations to justify using it.

Their rationale boils down to this: The more a black person uses the word, the less offensive it becomes. They claim that they are cleansing the word of its negative connotations so that racists can no longer use it to hurt blacks. Comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory had the same idea some years ago when he titled his autobiography Nigger. Black writer Robert DeCoy also tried to apply this form of racial shock therapy to whites when he titled his novel The Nigger Bible.

Kennedy ticks off the litany of defenses many blacks cite to justify using the word. They claim that it is a term of endearment or affection. They say to each other, "You're my nigger if you don't get no bigger." Or "that nigger sure is something." Others use it in anger or disdain: "Nigger, you sure got an attitude." Still others are defiant. They say they don't care what a white person calls them, since words can't harm them. Kennedy understands, even sympathizes with, their defense; he has no truck with those who want to purge the word from public discourse, wage war against its presence in such classics as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, encode it in hate-speech laws, and impose penalties and sanctions on professors, basketball coaches and public officials who use it, no matter how instructive or benevolent their intentions.

But in his passionate plea to recast public thinking and debate over the word, Kennedy makes the same mistake as other n-word apologists. Words are not value-neutral. They express concepts and ideas. Often words reflect society's standards. If color-phobia is a deep-rooted standard in American life, then a word as emotionally charged as "nigger" will always reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes. It can't be sanitized, cleansed, inverted or redeemed as culturally liberating.

"Nigger" can't and shouldn't be made acceptable, no matter whose mouth it comes out of or what excuse gets made for it. Kennedy goes further and creates straw-man enemies to bolster his warning against making too much ado about the word. He cites cases of blacks who lie for gain or publicity by claiming they were assailed by racist whites (e.g., the Tawana Brawley case), demand excessive punishment for offending whites or push to purge the word from dictionaries. These are extreme, media-sensationalized examples of blacks overreacting to the word. Yet there are dozens of daily examples where whites taunt and harass blacks by calling them "nigger"; spraypaint the word on their homes, businesses, churches; use the word as part of assaults, even murders, of blacks. The word "nigger" still has a grotesque and deadly meaning. And even if some blacks do occasionally protest too much, maybe that's because "nigger," as Kennedy himself admits, pricks agonizing historical and social sores.

That's certainly the reason comedian Richard Pryor publicly changed his mind about the word. The irreverent Pryor had practically made a career out of using "nigger" in his routines. But following his return from Africa, he told a concert audience that he now considered the word profane and disrespectful, and was dropping it from his act. His audience applauded. Although Kennedy frowns on Pryor's racial conversion as a betrayal of cultural faith and freedom, Pryor got it right. And anyone who reads Kennedy's Nigger should immediately go rent the tape of that concert to understand why there's no excuse for "nigger." *



No Defense For Webster’s “N” Word By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Sentinel on Thursday, October 23, 1998. 

Perhaps no word in the English language stirs more passion and outrage among blacks than the word “n—– -r,” or its politely sanitized version, the “N” word. It’s happened again. 

This time the offender is not a loose-lipped politician, celebrity, or athlete. It is none other than one of the bibles of the English language, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The dictionary is now the target of a national campaign by some black academics, local NAACP chapters, and Emerge magazine. 

They claim that Webster’s redefinition of the word “n——r” racially stigmatizes blacks and other nonwhites. They have a point. In the 1996 edition of Webster’s, “n——r” is defined as “a black person—usually taken to be offensive.” It went even further and applied the word to “a socially disadvantaged person.” It’s easy to see the danger in Webster’s redefinition. One could easily infer that the word “n——r” refers exclusively to blacks, the poor, and other nonwhites, and that all blacks are “socially disadvantaged.” 

So far, Webster’s has stuck to its guns and refused to bow to blacks’ complaints. Frederick C. Mish, Webster’s editor-in-chief, insists that that is the intent of the word. Mish further justified the definition by claiming that blacks use it among and about themselves, “Its use by and among blacks is not always intended or taken as offensive.” Apparently this puts the final stamp of racial approval on the word. This is self-serving, but unfortunately, true. In past issues of such popular black magazines as Essence and Emerge, black writers have gone through lengthy gyration to justify using the word. 

Their rationale boiled down to this: The more a black person uses the word the less offensive it becomes. They claim that they are cleansing the word of its negative connotations so that racists can no longer use it to hurt blacks. Comedian, turned activist, Dick Gregory, had the same idea some years ago when he titled his autobiography, “n——r.” Black writer, Robert DeCoy, also tried to apply the same racial shock therapy to whites when he titled his novel, “The N——r Bible.” 

Many blacks say they use the word endearingly or affectionately. They say to each other, “You’re my n—– -r if you don’t get no bigger,” or, “that N——-r sure is something.” Others use it in anger or disdain, “N—- –r you sure got an attitude,” or, “A N——r ain’t S—-.” Still, other blacks are defiant. They say they don’t care what a white person calls them because words can’t hurt them. The black defenders of the word miss the point. Words are not value neutral. They express concepts and ideas. Often words reflect society’s standards. A word, as emotionally charged as “n——r,” can reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes. The word “n——r” does precisely that. It is the most hurtful and enduring symbol of black oppression. 

In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain captured the total worthlessness of black lives during slavery. Aunt Sally asked Huck why he was late arriving. 

Huck lied and told her that his boat had been delayed.

Huck: We blowed out a cylinder head. 

Aunt Sally: Good gracious! Anybody hurt? 

Huck: No’m. killed a n——r. 

Aunt Sally: Well it’s luck; because sometimes people do get hurt. 

Novelist Richard Wright in his memorable essay, “The Ethic of Jim Crow,” remembers the time he accepted a ride from a “friendly” white man. When the man offered him a drink of whiskey Wright politely said, “Oh, no.” The man punched him hard in the face and said, “N——r ain’t you learned to say, ‘sir’, to a white man?” The pain from the blow would pass, but the pain from the “N” word would stay with him forever. 

During the era of legal segregation, some of America’s major magazines and newspapers continued to treat blacks as social outcasts. Historian Rayford Logan surveyed early issues of Atlantic Monthly, Century Monthly, North American Review, Harpers, The Chicago Tribune, New York Times, The Boston Evening Transcripts, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and The Indianapolis Journal. He noted that they routinely referred to blacks as “n——r,” “niggah,” “coon,” and “darky.” 

In news articles, blacks were depicted as buffoons or dangerous criminals. The NAACP and black newspaper editors waged vocal campaigns against racist stereotypes and the use of racist epithets. Black scholar, W.E.B. Dubois, frequently took white editors to task for refusing to spell “Negro” with an upper case “N.” Dubois called their policy a “conscious insult” to blacks. In that era, being called a Negro was a matter of pride and self-identity. Even some of the black defenders of the “N” word have realized their mistake and recanted. 

Following his return from a trip to Africa in the late 1970s, Richard Pryor told a concert audience that he would never use the word “n——r” again. The audience was stunned. The irreverent Pryor had practically made a career out of using the word in his routines. Pryor softly explained that the word was profane and disrespectful. He was dropping it because he had too much pride in blacks and himself. In this volatile climate of mounting racial hostility and polarization, a campaign to get Webster’s to “deracialize” its definition of the word, or better yet, delete it completely, as some dictionaries have done, is worthwhile. But black protestors would be wise to wage the same vigorous campaign to get African Americans to delete the word from their vocabulary too.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, PhD, is the author of The Assassination of the Black Male Image.


Some other resources for reading/discussion:

Nigger vs Nigga” by Chiaku Hanson

N-Word: The Troubled history of the racial slur” by Cherry Wilson

If you truly knew what the N-word meant to our ancestors, you’d NEVER use it” by Brando Simeo Starkey

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