How to Teach the N-word

The longer I live, the more questions I have and the more I want to understand race in this country of ours. I have always thought about race relations a great deal, but once I started teaching in Brooklyn issues of race became my daily lived experience. I spent 11 years as the only White person in my classroom, and if that doesn’t heighten your own racial awareness and sensitivity, I am not sure what will.

In those early years of teaching, I spent a lot of brain space trying to figure out who my students were, and I would try to turn their interests into part of my curriculum. I wanted the students to critically engage in their own lives, to think about the words they chose and the society they lived in, and to be able to articulate opinions backed up with resources and readings. This is what every good educator wants.

Which I why I choose to teach the topic of the n-word.

I was just quoted in the New York Times Learning Network piece on teaching the n-word , but like all journalism my explanation was edited down and I wanted to take this post to explain, fully, how I approached the n-word in class.

I used to teach the critical exploration of the n-word in my senior elective called Books to Film. This class was the English class for seniors not in AP and not in remedial Regents prep–the middle of the road kids in terms of literacy skills. We read one of my favorite books, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (a text, in retrospect, that was way too hard for them, FYI), and we watched the amazing film Apocalypse Now and the classic favorite Boyz in the Hood. We did two essays in this unit: a shorter one on the exploration of the n-word and a longer one on the theme of darkness across the novella and the two films.

To explore the n-word, we did the following:

Day 1: (44 minute class). We spent one day text mining and doing a textual analysis of Heart of Darkness. The students worked in pairs, pulled quotes on the descriptions of the Africans and the use of the n-word from the text from their assigned section (to insure that everyone didn’t read pages 1-10), and were asked to analyze the tone of the text in which the n-word appeared. How was the word being used? Was their a subtext to the word’s use or an inference that the reader might deduct from the word? Conrad moves between describing the Africans as black:

p. 79 “It was paddled by black fellows.”

p. 80 “A lot of people, mostly black and naked, moved about like ants.”

p. 81 “Six black mean advanced in a file, toiling up the path.”

To using the n-word:

p. 85 “Strings of dusty niggers with splay feet arrived and deported; a stream of manufactured goods…”

p. 87 “Well, if a lot of mysterious niggers armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to travelling on the road between…”

p. 92 “A nigger was being beaten nearby…”

In what context did he use “black” versus how he used “nigger”? After they found their quotes each pair shared a quote to the class and gave their analysis of the quote they chose. To wrap up the class, I asked if they felt Joseph Conrad, the author, 1. had used this word in a derogatory way that insulted the Africans and, 2. if they felt he did or did not have artistic license to use the word however he would like. Their responses were always intelligent, thoughtful, and surprising.


Day 2: On this day, we moved out of the novella and into more modern texts. First, we read Chapter 1 of Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word in class. Each time I taught this chapter, the exact same thing happened: laughter followed by anger. Chapter 1 begins with racist jokes, and the students always laughed at them, but then their laughter  turned into silence, and then their silence became muttering under their breath, and then the eventual “This is messed up” was said quietly by one student, and then it echoed loudly by another student. Each and every time. Randall Kennedy is a professor at Harvard Law School, and this book argues that the word has been used in hurtful ways and explores “the meanings and effects of nigger” (book cover blurb). We read this and had a Socratic seminar/class discussion on why Kennedy wrote this book, what the n-word means to him and to us, and how he/we defined the word. Next, we listened to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Sucka Nigga” (yes, I am dating myself here!) and talk about the song’s argument: that the transformation of nigger (insult) to nigga (term of endearment) is a form of empowerment for the Black community. The class was often pretty split between agreeing with Tribe and not.

[Disclaimer: When I taught these lessons, my high school was 35% Latino, 40% Black, 10% Arab (from Yemen and Palestine), and a few White and Asian kids. When I left my school, it had changed to be 65% Black. This entire mini-study was applicable and interesting to all the students because the n-word (both the -er and -a variety) was a constant in our hallways, classrooms, lunchroom, etc. Randall Kennedy also notes in that first chapter how the n-word has been adopted by poor White communities, by middle upper class White kids who love hip hop/rap, etc. therefore I think this critical exploration is applicable to all student audiences.]

[Disclaimer 2: My intent was never to tell the kids what to think of the n-word through this study; I wasn’t there to say “You should or shouldn’t use this word” for several reasons: One, I am a White woman. I don’t feel I can use this word–in any variation–at all. Two, I felt I had no right to tell them what they, as students of various races, could do with this word. And three, I had already learned that if you told the students to do something, they would do the opposite. I watched this as other Black teachers argued with the students over using the n-word–as soon as a teacher would say “Don’t use it!” the students would say, “We’re gonna use it!” I wanted the students to think for themselves about the n-word and decide–through critical reading, writing, and thinking–what their opinion was.]

Day 3: Lastly, we would work on constructing a thesis statement for their short essay in class and begin to write in class. Their essay topic was on whether artists–or anyone–should/should not have the right to use the n-word. I have always been a big fan of giving them time to get a writing piece started in the classroom; I think of a lot of struggling writers get stumped at home at the beginning and then never write a word. Structuring a lesson about the creation of a thesis and the organization of the essay assigned is always worthwhile class time for me.

And, finally, the piece de resistence, was the N-Word bulletin board. I always had a beautiful classroom therefore I was assigned the huge bulletin board at the end of the hallway (lucky me), so the students and I made a huge bulletin board on our critical study of the n-word. I actually have pictures of it! What I loved about this bulletin board is that I would constantly find school safety officers, students, and parents (and siblings) on parent:teacher night READING the song lyrics, book chapter, novella excerpt, and student work. READING it! It was interesting! And, oftentimes bulletin boards would get vandalized in our school (twice they were set on fire!), but this one never did. Swear to God.

n word bb close up on title (2)

n word bb kennedy part (2)

n word bb tribe part (2)

n word close up on heart (2)I did this n-word study for about four years, and each year both the students and I learned so much from it.

Sadly, new administration came along and my new Assistant Principal said I couldn’t/shouldn’t do this exploration of the n-word–she didn’t think it was appropriate. I argued, but I lost. I tried to incorporate the readings and conversations into other new curriculum I had written, but it never really manifested itself in the same way.

So there you have it, the long version (versus the New York Times short version) of how I taught the n-word.

Oh,and for kicks, here’s the Dave Chappelle video I suggested to the Times, too. The students love it. It’s great to talk about the n-word or racial slurs and stereotypes in general.

{Okay, this video does not work anymore. I have tried to embed it about half a dozen times now. Google “dave chappelle the niggar family” and you’ll find a Comedy Central posting of it. Sorry!}

4 thoughts on “How to Teach the N-word

  1. Hi Jazz,
    Thanks for alerting me to the fact that the embedded video was no longer working and that I hadn’t given a name for it (bad citing of sources, Lori!). The video is called The Niggar Family and if you google it, it will come up immediately. Hope that helps.

  2. What was the name of the Dave Chappelle clip that you showed? I would like to find it myself on YouTube or wherever I can.

  3. Thanks for the book recc! I am all about shameless self-promotion. Just put it on my list to buy. And, congrats on the book, too. Keep that writing coming.

  4. How did the Black African American community come about seeing and using the n-word as a term of endearment? Just what is the true significance of their use of the word n**ga? The answers to these questions and much more are revealed in the following publication which was released on February 10, 2014:

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