The word reduced to an initial and its place in the classroom

The word reduced to an initial and its place in the classroom

The storied tapestry of African-American history, while characterized by perseverance and resilience, is marred with the blood, sweat, and tears of four hundred years of unfathomable oppression.

This scarlet-stained narrative is not mine to claim. My roots are not tenaciously wrapped around that painful, triumphant history.

Thus, my link to the N-word in all of its awful glory is feeble. The magnitude of its harrowing history, however, still weighs heavily enough on me and the world; asterisks won’t suffice for the slur forever reduced to an initial.

As the damage of centuries of persecution continues to heal, the very descendants of the merciless word’s targets have unabashedly taken back control of the word, pronunciation and connotation evolving with the shift in possession. Now, it’s not uncommon to hear the word sewn into song lyrics and slung around amongst friends.

The rightful reversal in ownership has unintentionally desensitized too many to its historical gravity. I’ve heard it flow too naturally from too many of the wrong people’s mouths: shouted out with songs, thrown out casually with friends, and even spewed out in anger and disgust. As if this tradeoff in claim is justification for the entire world to grasp onto it as well, just as the word’s victims are prevailing over its power.

Which is why it’s puzzling to me that the issue of the word’s place in the classroom is an issue at all.

Historical pieces of literature such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn employ the word copiously with the absence of the softer -a suffix and a fun, hip rap beat, so only then the thought of uttering it is in question. As such, in recent years, the debate of censoring the word in literature and teaching methods of said literature has flared. To censor or not to censor, to read aloud or not to read aloud…

The way I see it, there shouldn’t be so large and bold of a question mark. The very purpose of school is to teach the youth about topics such as this. The fact that it’s an uncomfortable and shameful and gruesome part of our country’s history should act as a bright, flashing neon sign commanding its anchor to schools’ curriculums. These agonizing chapters of the past need to be accepted as learning lessons; that is the very least pain can offer us.

More importantly, to coldly dismiss the anguish of millions of people, expunging the blood stains from the history pages just because it’s simpler and easier, is an unjust calamity, a dagger driven into wounds still trying to heal.

The word was written into literature for a reason. In the context of historical fiction, it is a direct reflection of the history we cannot afford to ignore. Therefore, the mere thought of censoring it in books is repulsive to me. As for the question of reading it aloud in the classroom, I recognize that this issue is not as clear cut.

When I studied The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a sophomore, my teacher read excerpts from the novel— as he did for every other book we read— and he did not shy from saying the N-word out loud, which appears very frequently in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We discussed the word’s prevalence in the novel beforehand, and he warned us he’d be reading excerpts without censorship.

Yet, hearing him read the word in class, loudly and clearly, was utterly jarring. Every time, I could feel the thick tension roping around the classroom and every student in it like a noose.

And that’s the whole point.

The word should have that effect. It should disarm and alarm and off-put. The moment that word smoothly sails in and out of our ears is the moment we abandon the excruciating trials of those whose backs this country was built upon.

Back then, and even now, I don’t know if I’d be comfortable reading the word aloud in the classroom. I think that’s unrealistic to expect of high schoolers. Perhaps the choice of reading it should be left up to the individual student, but I don’t think that teachers should redact it when reading aloud.

My tenth-grade English teacher’s choice to read it was invaluable to my classmates and me. The experience of hearing that hard R ring through the thick, tense air of the classroom is now a tangible memory to associate with the word’s severity.

It is too easy to lose sight of the word’s historical journey. And to do so would be the ultimate disservice to those of this country’s past and future.