Teaching the N-Word To EFL Students: History & Meaning Of The N-Word

Today, I take you back 400 years in time, to the year 1619. The place is Jamestown, Virginia. The first African slaves have just “arrived” in America. At least, that’s what our history books tell us that John Rolfe documented: “Arrival of “20 and odd” Africans in late August 1619, aboard a Dutch ship.”

However, the report by John Rolfe is considered by many historians to be false. It was not a Dutch ship, but an English warship, the White Lion, sailing with a letters of marque issued to the English Captain Jope by the Protestant Dutch Prince Maurice, son of William of Orange.

A letters of marque legally permitted the White Lion to sail as a privateer attacking any Spanish or Portuguese ships it encountered.

The “20 and odd” Africans were captives removed from the Portuguese slave ship, the “San Juan Bautista”, following an encounter that ship had with the White Lion and her consort ship, the “Treasurer”, which was another English ship. The San Juan Bautista was attempting to deliver its African prisoners to Mexico.

John Rolfe’s reporting that the White Lion was a Dutch warship was a clever trick to transfer blame away from the English for piracy of the slave ship to the Dutch.

If you are confused, or distrustful of history and the history books, don’t worry.

1619 is definitely NOT the year when slavery began in the USA…

“In William Robertson’s, “History of America”, Volume 3, we read: “In 1517, the historian Robertson, charges the Dominican priest, Father Bartholomé de Las Casas, the “Apostle of the Indians,” with having proposed to Cardinal Ximenez to purchase a sufficient number of Negroes from the Portuguese settlements on the coast of Africa (Angola) and to transport them to America in order that they might be employed as slaves in working in the mines and tilling the ground.

Cardinal Ximenez however, when solicited to encourage the commerce, immediately rejected the proposition because he perceived the insanity of reducing one race of men (the Negroes) to slavery when he was consulting about the means of restoring freedom to another race (the Indians).

But Las Casas, from the inconsistency natural to men who hurry with headlong impetuosity towards a favourite point, was incapable of making the distinction.

While he contended earnestly for the liberty of the people born in one quarter of the world, he laboured to enslave the inhabitants of another region and in the warmth of his zeal to save the American Indians from the yoke, pronounced it to be lawful and expedient to impose one still heavier on the Africans…”

So, from that time to now, 1519 to 2019, we are talking about a historical event that goes back at at least 500 years in time, even before recorded history in Jamestown, Virginia, even before the white man ever set foot in America. How many times were slaves brought to the USA, with nobody “recording” or documenting that fact?

That is the weight of slavery, 500 years which can be traced back directly to the desire of a Dominican priest, Father Bartholomé de Las Casas, to save the American Indians from suffering brutality and inhumane treatment (genocide), at the hands of the Spanish.

Finally, what is the origins of the word, “nigger”? Is it the kind of word our students should be able to use?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the n-word is: ” A contemptuous term for a black or dark-skinned person.”

Furthermore, “the word nigger has been used as a strongly negative term of contempt for a black person since at least the 18th century.

Today it is one of the most racially offensive words in the English language.

Also referred to as ‘the n-word,’ nigger is sometimes used by black people in reference to other black people in a neutral manner (in somewhat the same way that queer has been adopted by some gay and lesbian people as a term of self-reference, acceptable only when used by those within the community).

Origin: The word originated in the late 16th century: from the Spanish word, “neger”, after the Latin word, “niger”, which means, ‘black’ (see Negro).

In the American dictionary, Merriam Webster, we read: “Nigger is an infamous word in current English, so much so that when people are called upon to discuss it, they more often than not refer to it euphemistically as “the N-word.” Its offensiveness is not new — dictionaries have been noting it for more than 150 years — but it has grown more pronounced with the passage of time.

The word now ranks as almost certainly the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English, a term expressive of racism, hatred and bigotry.

It is not unusual for young black people to refer to themselves using the N-word.

Its self-referential uses by and among black people are not always intended or taken as offensive (although many object to those uses as well), but its use by a person who is not black to refer to a black person can only be regarded as a deliberate expression of contemptuous racism.

Its offensiveness has grown to such an extent in recent decades that its use is likely to be found offensive and could lead to negative consequences.

The word’s occurrence in older literary works by such writers as Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens can be shocking and upsetting to contemporary readers.” (end of quote)

To finish, the question is whether or not teachers should take the time to teach their students of English as a Second Language (ESL) and/or English as a Foreign Language (EFL) about the history and meaning of the N-word. In other words, would it be potentially helpful to equip our students with this knowledge?

My answer to the question is simple and direct: Y-E-S… What about you?

About profesorbaker

Thomas Baker is the Past-President of TESOL Chile (2010-2011). He enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics. The source and inspiration for his writing comes from his family.
This entry was posted in Black History Month, Culture, Debates, Education, EFL, PLN, Reflections and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s