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Discomfort with the "n word"

In my freshman year of college, I enrolled in African American History (AAH). The course was not what I’d imagined. I knew I needed to fill in the gaps in my AAH education. Prior to the class, I’d learned about Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, George Washington Carver, and a handful of other blacks who changed America. I wanted to learn more about my own heritage and about the large societal changes that shaped black lives today. My husband, a history professor, laughs at the way I approached history, at the thick history textbook with color-coded Post-it notes on almost every page. Quizzes in that class seemed to be loaded with random questions on minute details. I had desperately tried to remember all the important ones. (Thank God there were essay tests.)

An incident occurred at the end of one class period. We were all on our way out the door, backpacks in hand when the professor, an African American man with a gray beard, got very serious.

That word is not allowed in this class,” he told a student.

The boy had used the word “nigger”, probably “nigga”, while talking to a fellow student. The professor warned all of us: anyone who used the “n word” would be kicked out. He explained that it was a disgraceful term. It didn’t matter that the student who said it was black.

The visceral response of the professor struck a nerve with me. It begged the question of whether the word itself carries too much of its past use to be re-purposed. Personally, I cannot let the word roll off my lips. Using it casually now seems to negate the weight the word held and still holds today. However, different contexts prompt different responses even in myself.

Last week I went to see the play “Jackie and Me,” based on the book by Dan Gutman. The character, Joe Stoshack, a Polish boy with a temper who loves baseball, travels back in time to meet Jackie Robinson. He soon notices that his skin is no longer white, but black. He now has to navigate this segregated sphere, which he does poorly. He is pushed out of the “Whites only” line for the fountain and mistreated in the locker room along with Jackie Robinson. It is a particularly interesting turn of events, one a student in the audience asked about during the Q & A after the show.

“Why does his skin change from white to black and then back to white?” the student asked.

The actor responded, “The character travels back in time to embody the characters. In this book, his skin changes so that he can better understand what it’s like for Jackie at that time.”

I believe that empathy can be genuinely experienced across racial lines, but that visceral, raw, anxious emotion when words like the “n word” are used, the way my professor felt, is what I felt during the play. I sat front row and waited as Jackie handed a hate letter he’d received to the Joe (once Polish, now black).

“I’m gonna kill you—” Joe read and then stopped.

“You need to read it,” Jackie urged him.

I knew what the word was, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. I went back to that awkward feeling in elementary where the teacher talks about slavery. Suddenly its all eyes on me: blue eyes, green eyes, light brown eyes, but none as dark as mine, wondering if I am like the black slaves the teacher is talking about. I’m in the theatre with a group of people of which I am the only Black person. They might be uncomfortable, but it is not the same kind of uncomfortable as me.

I’m thinking from a place of burning on the inside: Didn’t prepare myself for this today. I don’t know if I’m ready to hear this word--- here.

The character Joe tried to read the words again:

“I’m going to kill you (pause) nigger.”

I suddenly felt vulnerable, exposed, all eyes on me like in the elementary classroom. I needed Jackie to say something quickly. Once he did, I was able to suppress the visceral response and put back on my intellectual hat. Where others said they cried, I almost cried. It is a hard thing to explain.

“I didn't cry, but I definitely felt it,” I later told someone from my group who asked my opinion of the play. But I couldn’t let go too much. I'm not going to be that vulnerable on a normal afternoon on a school field trip. I've got to have the right space to process like that.

My mom was called “nigger” by a neighbor’s friend’s son about seven years ago. It probably wasn’t the first time. If my dad wasn’t called one, his mother or his sister or aunt or brother was. It’s still there, all the memories, a few passed down to me. Some very recent. It’s not everyday I want to go down memory lane.

While I don’t like the term as it is commonly used as slang today, I don’t have the same response as when its used in its primary context. I’m not sure how much students, including my own ten-year-old daughter, were able to process, but I believe that because the play was well done, if anything, the students learned that the term is hurtful and not to be said.

I understand why the writers felt it was necessary to use the "n word" for the play. Visceral reactions to painful words and subjects are good reminders of what’s evil and what’s good. It’s what helps us to build empathy, to feel what someone else feels as best we can. It brings understanding by prompting deeper questions. As a writer, I want to do the same thing. I want to deal with the hard, soul-stirring things that happen in life, because the discomfort that comes from looking truth in the face is often a necessary agent in godly sorrow.

Ashley Soden is the director of Write/Create, Inc. She's currently writing her first novel. When she's not writing, she's living life to the full with her husband and three energetic kids. You may also find her making lattes at Starbucks.

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