Last week, while reading a passage from Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, I saw a student’s jaw drop out of the corner of my eye. “Dr. E,” she said when I completed the passage. “You used the hard -er.”
I had indeed. The quote from the play reads, “Cal, if I catch a nigger in this town going shooting, you know what’s going to happen.” The character who says it is a coward and a thief–and a racist. His use of that word confirms the play’s dim view of his actions and his politics. I explained to the student that I do my best to read in character; that I read things the way they’re written; and that I don’t expect students to do the same if there are phrases that offend them.
However, that moment in class opened the door for a broader discussion of the n-word: how should we deal with its history? how do we place it in context? who can use it? who can’t? why isn’t it always offensive–or is it? what’s the difference between the hard -er and an -a?
The ensuing discussion kept even the droopiest eyelids wide open, but it hardly proved conclusive. If you’d like to present your ideas about the questions above, feel free to do so. Be forewarned, though, that you must employ a respectful tone. You should also know that there’s one particular train of thought that many in the class found immediately objectionable: that if a word can be used by one group of people, then it should be used by all. Finally, don’t be afraid to link research or other commentary in your posts.