To know that we share something unspeakable
To know that as high as we rise we are not seen as equal
To know that racism is institutional thinking
And that ‘nigger’ is the last word you heard before a lynching.
– Taken from Dean Atta´s, “I Am Nobody’s Nigger”
Is there a place for the N-word in literature? Well, if comedians use the word in their comedy acts to make you laugh, and rap artists can use the word 128 times in a 3-minute song, there can be little doubt that writers can use the n-word in their books. Let me name only a few writers and their N-word books to illustrate my point:
Agatha Christie: “Ten Little Niggers”
Charles Dickens: “Bleak House”
Charles Dickens: “The Pickwick Papers”
Mark Twain: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
Joseph Conrad: “The Nigger of The Narcissus”
Alex Haley: “Roots”
William Faulkner: “Absalom, Absalom!”
Harriet Beecher Stowe: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
Toni Morrison: “Beloved”
Robert Louis Stevenson: “South Sea Tales”
Zora Neale Hurston: “Their Eyes Were Watching God”
James Baldwin: “Go Tell It On The Mountain”
Thomas Wolfe: “Look Homeward, Angel”
Harper Lee: “To Kill A Mockingbird”
Richard Wright: “Native Son”
Norman Mailer: “The Naked And The Dead”
Ralph Ellison: “Invisible Man”
John Steinbeck: “Of Mice And Men”
Jean Rhys: “Wide Sargasso Sea”
Joseph Conrad: “Heart Of Darkness”
Alice Walker: “The Color Purple”
David Foster Wallace: “Infinite Jest”
Rudyard Kipling: “Kim”
James Joyce: “Ulysses”
John Steinbeck: “The Grapes Of Wrath”
Marcel Proust: “In Search Of Lost Time”
Harold Rap Brown: “Die Nigger Die”
Randall Kennedy: “Nigger”
Joseph Heller: “Catch 22”
Phillip Roth: “American Pastoral”
Ian Fleming: “Live And Let Die”
Feodor Dostovesky: “Crime And Punishment”
Ernest Hemingway: “A Farewell To Arms”
F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Tender Is The Night”
Zadie Smith: “White Teeth”
Dick Gregory: “Nigger”
Cecil Brown: “The Life And Loves Of Mr. Jive-Ass Nigger”
Carl Van Vechten: “Nigger Heaven”
Pierre Vallieres: “White Niggers Of America”
Dean Atta: “I Am Nobody’s Nigger”
Elliot Jaspin: “Buried In The Bitter Waters”
Jabari Asim: “The N-Word”
Yes, that’s enough. Now, I am going to stop naming authors who use the n-word in their books. The list is an endless one which includes Nobel Prize winners. Writers use the n-word an awful lot, we can all agree on that.
Now here’s the Million-Dollar-Question: Should our students be able to read these books?
For example, I wonder if James Joyce’s “nigger” is the same nigger as Ernest Hemingway’s nigger.
Is Harold Rap Brown’s or Dean Atta´s or Zadie Smith’s or Mark Twain’s nigger the same nigger?
What about the niggers of Joseph Conrad or Alice Walker or Agatha Christie or Charles Dickens? Are all these niggers the same nigger, or different niggers?
My best guess is that each one of these writers have used the word “nigger” in a contextually-different way that contradicts the definition we found in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Therefore, it seems clear to me that the dictionary is not capable of providing an all-encompassing, precise, situationally-correct definition of the n-word in the multiple way(s) it is used today and has been used in the past.
We are simply giving our students a general, one-size-fits-all definition and the wise advice to “NEVER say the word” in order to help them avoid getting themselves in a difficult situation.
What EFL/ESL students are not given, however, are the tools to understand the n-word on a deeper, more profound level.
We’ve simply given them a survival strategy: “Never say the word.”
But is that really enough?
If we accept that, NO, it isn´t enough, then the implication for teachers of EFL/ESL students is to provide access to literature that has not been sanitised or censored.
Through reading and discussing N-word inclusive literature, we can help our students not only to understand the multiple meanings and contextual uses of the n-word, but also make well-informed decisions about their own uses (and abuses) of the word.
We must not forget that we are living in the age of “Fake News” and “Post Truth” and Misinformation. Threats to free speech and freedom of expression are everywhere. That is why our students’ ability to speak openly and truthfully is more essential than ever.
They need to think for themselves, to be critical of what they read, and to voice their thoughts and opinions about the fast-changing world they are living in. Above all, freedom of speech is their right, according to the Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances…