The Ethics of the “N-Word” in the Classroom

An illustration from the 1884 first edition of Huckleberry Finn.

The Ethics of the “N-Word” in the Classroom is reposted from History News Network.

On May 2, the New York Times published an opinion essay, “How the N-Word Became Unsayable,” by John McWhorter, an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. In the essay, adapted from his new book Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter, McWhorter, who is African American, traced the history of the “N-word” and used it freely in the text. He argues that the “N-word” evolved from being a more or less “neutral descriptor” in the 16th century to being a nasty pejorative in the 20th century and a taboo phrase at the start of the 21st century. In an accompanying essay, two New York Times editors explained why the newspaper decided to publish the essay and include the offending slur. In their essay they write “N-word,” not the slur itself.

As a high school teacher and a university-based teacher educator and historian, and as a white man often teaching in classrooms where students were predominately African American, I have always taken a careful approach to the examination of racist language and racist imagery when teaching about America’s racist and nativist past. Sometimes I edited out language while alerting students to the edits. Other times I discussed the issue with students and let the class decide if they wanted to examine the original text or an edited alternative. We did not read racist language aloud. My thought with both the text and images was that I wanted students to understand the depth and power of racism in American society. This was never about “cancel culture.”

I want high school and college students to understand that there is a lot of implicit and explicit racism in important American documents starting in the colonial era. The Colonial Laws of New York encoded enslavement in 1702 when the General Assembly dictated “no Person or Persons hereafter throughout this Province, do presume to Trade with any slave either in buying or selling, without leave and Consent of the Master or Mistress” and in 1711 the Common Council of the City of New York established a place for the sale and rent of enslaved Africans at the Wall Street Slip. Starting in 1742, the New York City Common Council approved a series of regulations to severely restrict the freedom of movement of enslaved Africans in the city.

The Declaration of Independence, which was primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, accused the King of Great Britain of exciting “domestic insurrections amongst us” in response to the 1775 proclamation by Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of the Virginia colony, declaring that “all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear Arms.” The Virginia Assembly responded, “that all negro or other slaves, conspiring to rebel or make insurrection, shall suffer death.” While the Declaration famously declared that “all men are created equal,” in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson, who spent the majority of his adult life in a sexual relationship with an enslaved African woman, argued that whites had “superior beauty,” smelled better, and could reason more effectively than Black people.

The Constitution of the United States never explicitly mentioned slavery prior to passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, but recognized and endorsed enslavement in a number of clauses. Article I, Sec. II, Paragraph III based taxation and representation on “the whole Number of free Persons” plus “three-fifths of all other Persons.” Article I, Section IX, Clause I declares that Congress will not prohibit prior to 1808 “Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit.” Article IV, Sec. II, Clause III demands the return of any person “held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another.” In his 1841 argument before the Supreme Court in the Amistad case, former President John Quincy Adams referred to the explicit omission of slavery in the Constitution as “the fig-leaves under which the parts of the body politic are decently concealed.”

Continued at History News Network

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Eric Tait, Bob Anthony, and Alan Singer discuss racism in America including voter suppression on Media Watch.