California English Journal
the people is a very eloquent beginning. But when that
document was completed on the 17th of September in 1787,
I was not included in that 'We the people'. I felt somehow
for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton
must have left me out by mistake. But through the process
of amendment, interpretation, and court decisions I have
finally been included in 'We the people'. My faith in
the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total.
I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator in
the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the
Who was that person who laid her hand on the soul of this nation on that day in 1974? Who was that Barbara Jordan everyone was talking about then and few have talked about since? Why aren't her picture and her words displayed on school bulletin boards every February? Indeed, why isn’t her last sentence chiseled in stone above the main doorway of every government building, including schools, across the United States?
Who? She's arguably the most authentically heroic American of the last half-century, and few sixth and eleventh graders know her. Why? She's not included in the human symbolism that permeates "African-American" month.
If students don't know Barbara Jordan, they cannot know anything of the modern civil rights movement, what it cost, and what it achieved.
This is For You
Feedback is my habituated classroom protocol, so I said, "That's a complex sentence, Ron. Good for you." I should have continued, "Now, here's a couple of pages I'd like you to read. They're about a woman from Houston, Texas who attended Texas Southern University because that was the law school set up in Texas to keep Black students out of the University of Texas. She was the best Black debater in the segregated south. Her debate coach once arranged for the Texas Southern team to travel to the Baylor (Waco) tournament where people of different colors were permitted to debate one another. In the middle of the tournament, she later reported, she had an insight. ‘Why you white girls are no competition at all. If this is the best you have to offer, I haven't missed anything’ (Rogers, 1998, p. 55). She won the declamation (public speaking) contest. Ron, the screwing's real if you like, but it isn't necessary if you don't. There are a lot of people like Barbara Jordan. You can know them, if you're interested." That's what I should have said.
Had I been their regular teacher, I could have asked them all to name the movers and shakers in the modern civil rights movement, and then caution that the list begins after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. I could have delayed the complex sentence lesson until tomorrow or next week, or next month; after all, they had survived ten years before the tenth grade, and much of the tenth grade, not understanding complex sentences. What's the hurry now?
Ron showed that there's a hurry, alright, but it isn't with complex sentences. It isn't with hero worship, either, or the trivial study prints of basketball players, poets, and film stars hauled out because it's February. Ron and his friends in that class, Black and White, Southeast Asian, Mexican, and Guatemalan, need to know a host of people, heroic, certainly, but folks like them, too, and they can't come to know them, and learn from them, in one month, the shortest one at that.
They need biographical and autobiographical studies as the driving force in their tenth grade curriculum, across the content areas. They need Angela Davis, H. Rap Brown, Johnnetta Cole, and Stokley Carmichael. They need Tommy Smith and John Carlos. They need Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.
Of course they need Martin Luther King, Jr. The dream speech is a terrific listen, and read, maybe twice or three times. But far too many tenth graders in California and across the United States have gotten the dream speech every February since the kindergarten, and they've never heard his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail."
They've never heard of nor from Nat Turner, either, or Marcus Garvey, or Ida B. Wells Barnett, Ethel Waters, Mary McLeod Bethune, or Richard Wright.
Most debilitating of all, however, is that Ron and his friends have never heard of the man from Great Barrington, Massachusetts who, on his first day at Fisk University in Tennessee, walked among more Black people than he had ever seen before, and he commented later about the startling variety of colors, the mahogany, the coffee, the blues and yellows, and he never understood the inability of White people to appreciate the beauty that startled him so. Most debilitating of all is that Ron and his friends had never been introduced to probably the brightest intellectual star of the last hundred years, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.
Expecting to understand civil rights without knowing Du Bois is like trying to understand civil liberties without knowing Madison, Hamilton, and Jay.
So start with Du Bois. The Crisis (Du Bois, 1963), the journal of the early National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which Du Bois helped found, is a treasure trove of literature by and about Americans of African decent.
"Note these arguments, my brothers and sisters, and watch your State legislatures. This winter will see a determined attempt to insult and degrade us by nonintermarriage laws. We must kill them, not because we are anxious to marry white men's sisters, but because we are determined that white men shall let our sisters alone." (vol. 5, 1913)
Mastering nonfiction text is critical for young readers and writers. Du Bois offered physical, social, and moral reasons for beating back nonintermarriage bills in the state legislatures in 1913. His argument is clear, coherent, and persuasive, an exemplar of the interaction between form and function. The 600-word piece is arranged in nine paragraphs, the fourth of which contains his thesis.
"Some 75,000 Negro voters in the State of New York will be asked to decide this month as to whether or not they are willing that women should have the vote in this State. It is an unpleasant but well-known fact that hitherto American Negro voters have, in the majority of cases, not been favorable to woman sufferage. This attitude has been taken for two main reasons." (vol 15, 1917)
Du Bois is well-known, among those who know, as the intellectual conscience of the modern civil rights movement. He is less-known for a contribution of at least equal significance. He was a foremost feminist, because to be Black and antisufferage was oxymoronic.
the simplicity and incontrovertible truth of the argument.
As we try to teach the nature of the argument made rather thanhad, it would be well to read Du Bois' examples.
If W.E.B. Du Bois was the intellectual conscience of the modern civil rights movement, Barbara Jordan was its heart. In 1976 she delivered one of the most thrilling performances in the history of party conventions.
"It was 144 years ago that members of the Democratic Party first met in convention to select their presidential candidate. Since that time, Democrats have continued to convene once every four years to draft a party platform and nominate a presidential candidate. Our meeting this week is a continuation of that tradition.
"But there is something different. There is something special about tonight. What is different? What is special?
"I, Barbara Jordan, am the keynote speaker.
"A lot of years have passed since 1832. It would have been most unusual for any national political party to have asked a Barbara Jordan to make a keynote address...most unusual. But tonight, here I am. I feel that notwithstanding the past, my presence is one additional bit of evidence that the American Dream need not forever be deferred." (Rogers, 1998, p. 265)
There, Ron, while you lament the past, be sure to read its history and come to understand it in terms deeper than signs over drinking fountains, and grip the past through the eyes of Ida B. Wells Barnett and Nat Turner. If you work at it, you have the opportunity to understand that the American Dream need not be deferred. It's a choice, Ron. Your teachers can introduce you to people who made your history and voices that paved your way. That is your teachers' professional responsibility with respect to the literature of Americans of African decent. Then the ball's in your court. Your teachers are responsible for ensuring that you know the people and the voices that hacked paths through thickets of national shame. You are responsible for walking the path to keep it clear.
At the age of fourteen, James Forten lived a free American of African decent, thanks to his grandfather, an African-born slave who managed to buy his own and his wife's freedom. Young James lived in rags with his mother in Philadelphia, free but with no way out of poverty. Then he was hired as a powder monkey (responsible for delivering dry gunpowder to cannoneers) aboard an American privateer. On his second voyage, his ship was captured. It appeared the British would send him to the West Indies, a slave in the sugar fields. But he played marbles, and the captain arranged a game between James and his son. James was much the better marble player. The captain offered to send James to England for his formal education if he renounced his allegiance to America. Fourteen-year-old James Forten, facing slavery in the cane fields of Cuba, said,
"No! I was captured fighting for my country and I will never be a traitor to her" (Hoose, 2001, p. 67).
James spent the next seven months aboard a British prison ship where he nearly starved to death. Then he lived many years to see his sons and grandsons become leaders in the antislavery movement.
Some of our students know Malcolm X. There are a variety of sounds and images. Here is an image they don't often see.
"I will never say that progress [for blacks] is being made. If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. You pull it all the way out, that's not progress. The progress is healing the wound that's below -- that's below me" (Salley, 1993).
Be reminded of Dick Gregory's autobiography in which he described the wound that comes of being Black in the United States and warns of calluses that form over those wounds, calluses that wear out the system that produced them (Gregory, 1964).
We know Dick Gregory, now. At least some people do. But in 1945, Dick Gregory was an unknown young Black man in East St. Louis, hungry most of the time, a failing student who learned he could make people laugh at angry stories about racism, poverty, and the degradation of class distinction. The chapter that tells of his against-all-odds opening at Chicago's Playboy Club ends with the bitterness of finally being on the other side. "That was Christmas, 1961, so different from all the Christmases I'd ever had. It was as if I had rolled it all together in one big ball, and bounced it, and while it was up in the air, said, 'It's get-even time, Santa'." (Gregory, 1964, p. 167).
is another side, Ron, a different time. Think about your
despondent complex sentence. Read Dick Gregory's paragraph,
Ron. Then read the book. There were holes in his shoes
when he went on stage that December night in 1961, and
he had his first decent meal in months at 3:30 that morning.
But there was to be no more hunger in Dick Gregory's life,
at least not because he couldn't buy food. As Barbara Jordan
said, The American Dream need not be deferred forever.
There are two more stanzas in poet Dunbar's poem. He lived 34 years wrapped around the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Although he wrote occasionally about lynching, mostly he wrote about writing, and he wrote about being despondent. He wrote to his wife in 1898.
"Half the time I am so discouraged I feel like throwing down the pen with a good sound 'damn'" (Boyd, 2000, p. 175).
Despondence can be very powerful, Ron, but Paul Lawrence Dunbar wrote his poetry anyway, and Ida B. Wells Barnett wrote essays against lynching anyway. W.E.B. Du Bois earned a doctorate from Heidelberg University in Germany and another from Harvard, anyway. Frederick Douglass was the foremost speaker and writer against slavery in the nineteenth century, anyway. Nat Turner gave his life in 1831 in punishment for his leadership of a rebellion against slavery. Du Bois and Douglass and Turner were all despondent. They all lived and worked anyway.
More recently, Ron, Thurgood Marshall led the NAACP legal team that won the fight to legally desegregate public schools. Ron Karenga led the movement to celebrate Kwanzaa as a way to bring about unity and positive self-image to Americans of African decent. You can probably get his email address. He'll have something to say to you about your sentence, Ron.
Ever hear of John Howard Griffin, Ron, or Edward Ball? I have those two people's books over there under the portrait of Phillis Wheatley. They're there for you and your friends to read so we can have deliberative conversations about being Black in the United States. There's Anchee Min, Sucheng Chan, and Huynh Dinh Te over there, too, and Alfred Crosby, Andres Oppenheimer, Oliver LaFarge, John Ehle, Monty Roessel, and Vine Deloria.
But I'd like you to look at Johnnetta B. Cole, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright and some of the others there first because during the second week of October we're going to have a seminar in this class about how writers articulate their joy, their rage, and their despondency, and I'd like you to be sufficiently well-read to participate in the orientation I have planned for the first week of October. I'm going to read aloud a lot that first week of October. There will be a lot of partner reading, and a lot of Power Writing (Fearn and Farnan, 2001, pp. 69-70). You're going to write Reader Responses (Rosenblatt, 1978) to what I read aloud and what you read together and independently. And during the second week of October we're going to compare how the writers write when they're writing about who they are as American men and women of African decent.
And we're going to read, talk, and write about that during the second week of every month this year, though not every time about Americans of African decent. You see, John Steinbeck wrote about emotional well-being in his diary (Steinbeck, 1969), just as do others over there in that bookcase. And you want rage? Check out Farley Mowat's People of the Deer, and read Vine Deloria's We Talk, You Listen. But first, it's the literature of Americans of African decent. And we start the week after next.
from Citations in the Text
Selection of References for Biographical and Autobiographical
Studies of Americans of African Decent
The janitor had spent all of one summer watching boys at the pool. They skimmed under the sleeping waves with white gobs crammed onto their red noses to ward off sunburn. They sunned in gaggles on the concrete, floppy green trunks rolled up their legs. They threw pieces of their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the pigeons and gamboled longingly around the edges of the deep end, daring one another to cannonball, sloshing their pale, crusty feet in the water, croaking from lily pad inner tubes, snapping wet towels at each other’s asses. The janitor could always pick out the kids from his school by tone, gait, stance—the slump-shouldered, booger-picking third grader, the loose-limbed, malcontent sixth. The kids from his school all blew double-bubbles, tatooed their hands with phone numbers, snorted aw dang, aw gee to each other in the halls flooding from recess, darted in and out of doorways dripping gum on their math homework and drafted fake bathroom passes by trade. That summer he saw all of those kids at the pool, or versions of them, reborn year after year inside the manic roar of the piss blue water.
Bored on a Saturday he’d put his car in park with the motor on and watch the silent film of boy divers that came for the last white shift of the evening. Running arcing high in the air in lemon sliver suspension, then, splash, on his windshield. High-schoolers, from Dealey mostly. They stretched and brooded in cabals of six and seven, muscling aside the reverent throng of elementary-schoolers gathered around the diving board to watch. The first diver out would mount, his toes erect, fiercely oblivious to the elementary-schoolers as he glided down the board then off the edge, a reverie of white skin in water, stroking like an advance guard. The rest would fall off the board in pallid, economical dives, in thrall to Jim Clay, the boy who’d blossomed the summer before into something fierce.
Clay had been a third stringer the summer before, a dawdler clinging to a kickboard at the shallow end of the pool, brow furrowed in deep lustrous thought, desperately pretending that he didn’t hear the snickers of the other boys about what a nancy he was. He’d practiced and practiced until his dick shriveled to a peanut inside his swim trunks and his flesh took on a sepulchral glow. Saturdays, the world of Dealey in his palm, he’d step on the board, sniffle plaintively up at the sky, square his Baby Huey body at the edge of the board for effect, play to the elementary crowd, to the ten year-olds who folded their arms and stuck their chests out in imitation of his raw-power girth.
They secretly coveted every drop from his hair, the swimming pool dew in the crack of his ass, the boloney breath he blew all day from the sandwiches his uncle fixed him for school, going bug-eyed over the supernatural glint of his teeth when he flashed that fugitive smile of his. Some of the boys had taken to following him after diving practice, trailing shyly behind him a few paces through the daisy field crisscrossed by the old Lily Valley spur, pantomiming being busy with something else whenever he turned around to see who was following him.
Every time the janitor saw him now a pack of boys from the school would be close on his heels, shame, tentativeness giving way to a suckling lust the janitor could taste, a spasm of jealousy rising unbidden in his own chest for this boy who’d initially faded into the toilet tissue wad hurling mob with the rest of them. Now a small notice was being paid of him in the throwaway circulars that the housewives collected from their porches to check the meat specials. Swim meet announcements, quotes barked out on the fly from the coach, statistics invisible to the naked eye swirled under the fresh inventory of reductions on t-bone and pork chops. The janitor noticed that Clay’s hair seemed to curl more glisteningly over his ears, bristling with static electricity. The name Clay was gaining some buzz at the high school, winning him small privileges. A hall pass to the nurse when he whined about stomach cramps, a tardy wiped clean from his attendance record, grudging regard from the office clerks, the head typist. In his last year at the elementary the janitor had swept up a fragment of his emergency card and kept it in one of the boxes of un-cataloged garbage in his closet. On the card the boy’s address was listed near the Lily. He lived with an uncle, Lionel Clay, who had worked for Annixter reading meters so long he had developed the monocle squint of a lecher. The janitor had seen him bringing Jim to school a few times, seen Jim bound out of the car almost before it came to a full stop, slamming the door without a second look. Once he’d left his lunch on the roof, and he’d raced spastically after the retreating car screaming, peanut butter and jelly brains splattering onto the ground.
He didn’t remember how many years ago that had been, but he’d seen them together riding around town every now and then, frozen in a pose of disorbit, the boy cast adrift into adolescence, his face deepening into the same gray disquiet as his uncle’s, suspended between childhood and the unknown.
The janitor bit his lip, adjusting his car seat. A boy on a bike darted into view in the side mirror then disappeared. He told himself that there was nothing exceptional about Jim, nothing exceptional at all, nothing that set him apart from the others, except for the memory that ran between them like the braid of a noose, a flurry of moments when he had forgotten himself. He turned the key in the ignition and tried to kill the memory of Lionel Clay’s mother, the smell of her hair before rain, the way it curled behind her ears like Jim’s, the darkness of her voice breathing alongside him, and him drowning in its quicksand as he lay beside her fighting sleep, paralyzed with desire, revulsion. It had been someone else’s life not his. Made up from a train ticket, a transfer, names scribbled on a grocery list that that had been imprinted in his waking dreams, running through his body like a virus. He gave the car a little gas, hypnotized by the silvery waves of the pool slopping over the side in the aftermath of some punk’s half-assed cannonball. Normally he would wait for the last swimmer to leave, follow him for a while, inventing a family, a life, the nicknames his mother called him, the toy pattern on his sheets, the places he hid his soiled underwear, the map of bruises on his body. Normally, but now he was tired and hungry, feeling his way out of the wreckage of his thoughts of her. He saw the shadow of Sven, the groundskeeper’s pole creeping across the asphalt, cutting into the water as the last white body exited from the pool.
Poem and a Word Galvanize Students Into Action
My line of questioning usually goes something like this:
Me: So, you’re concerned that you won’t get through the entire curriculum by the end of the year?
“ Hmm...So, you’re going to rush through the Harlem Renaissance, Gatsby, and Sula in four weeks?”
“ Well, yeah, I have to...I mean, these kids won’t be ready for next year...”
“ How thoroughly will they know these units or the Standards you’ve been trying to teach them? What will show depth of understanding in these one and a half week units?”
“ Well,..er. if ...well, I don’t have time to go deeply into any of these topics or actually make them reach any standards...There are only four more weeks left in the year. I don’t have time...”
“ And what will happen if you just took your time and went through just one of the units and skipped the other two? Would you be fired; or will the Spanish Inquistion of the LAUSD write you up?”
“ Oh really? When has this ever happened? How many teachers have been fired for not making it through an entire curriculum? Has that ever been written on someone’s Stull? I’d love to see that.”
At this point the conversation peters out, and the person I’ve been conversing with has to go (Of course, they’re always in a rush).
I often wonder why teachers feel so rushed and desperate to get through a list of assignments and then claim that they are teaching. Or, they feel that two or three sets of entirely different students should be on the same unit at the exact same time. So, they ignore differences, skip concepts, short-circuit rich class discussions all because we “have to keep up with the other periods.”
Who says so? Isn’t our job to teach for understanding, look for teachable moments and impart to our students skills and memories that will last a lifetime?
I remember teaching this one incredible group of students their eleventh grade year in an American Literature class. We were moving smoothly along my set curriculum making good time to “meet our deadlines” when we happened upon a Countee Cullen poem, “Incident in Baltimore,” in which the author recounts his first visit to Baltimore, Maryland as a young boy. As I prepared to teach the poem, I added a couple of other texts to supplement understanding and discussion of the “N” word and its sordid history.
I included an article by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, “No Defense for the ‘N’ word”, a short story entitled, “The Death of Tommy Grimes” and another poem by the Last Poets of Watts.
Well, a 12 lined poem and some supplements that should have lasted maybe a day or two wound up taking two and a half weeks and this was back in the day when students met their teachers every day! My students debated and bemoaned the prevelance of the N word on campus, thought of ways to curtail it, and brought in more materials on this subject, including songs and a taped Chris Rock monologue on the controversial word.
By the time we finished the poem and all of the supplemental materials, my involved students created a museum of shame on the “N” word that, over the course of three days, 400 students visited. After each class toured the museum (complete with James Brown’s “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!” blaring on a boom box), my students facilitated consciousness discussions on the constant peppering of nigger or nigga in their language and how other terms like “my brother” were much more positive.
In their reflection on the newly constructed unit, all of the students appreciated their teacher being flexible in the course outline. Most of them said that looking at the history and issues revolving around one word made them stop and think twice about the hip hop jargon they use so thoughtlessly, especially when it pertains to the storied legacy of African Americans.
More importantly, my students empowered themselves and constructed a rigorous curriculum that was both connected to their lives and engaging. While we never got to Sula or wrote all the essays I wanted them to, we did learn how to posit arguments, listen, and reason with one another, both verbally and in writing.
In comparing those kinds of experiences with the more staid goal of “coverage” many in our profession stand by--the syllabus and lesson planner routine, I’m more apt to stick to the teachable moments as the cherished goals and standardss of our profession and classrooms.
N-Word: Confronting Racist Language in African American
The word appears in many seminal literary works, some of which are part of our canon at King/Drew High Magnet High School where I teach, for example: in the novels Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest J. Gaines, Always Outnumbered, Outgunned by Walter Mosely; the plays Fences and The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, the autobiographies I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, The Autobiography of Malcolm X., Black Boy by Richard Wright, Nigger by Dick Gregory; and in short stories and poems by authors such as Toni Cade Bambara, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Nikki Giovanni, and Quincy Troupe.
Being African American myself, I understand the necessity to always guide students tactfully through this verbal minefield as we explore the connotation of this dangerous term in their negotiation of meaning of these significant works of literature. Additionally, because its use is prevalent on campus, as well as in rap music, I know that my students -- mostly African American and Latino, with a sprinkling of whites, Asians and others – have heard---and maybe even used, the N-word in informal conversation. Whenever I prepare to teach a work in whose context the term is used, I first invite the class to contemplate its social use. Exploring its connotation not only gives the students a way to connect to the themes in the literature, but it stimulates awareness that the word implies racial attitudes, both in literature and perhaps in their own lives.
A few years ago, I engaged a ninth grade class in reflective conversation about their use of the word. I told them, “I hear students on our campus using the term regularly, including many non-African Americans. The word echoes through our halls, zings around in the lunch area, and bounces up and down on the gym floor.” Amidst the murmurs of agreement and sheepish laughter that greeted my observation, I asked them to write personal reflections in their journals, describing their feelings about the use of the word. In addition, as a homework assignment, I required that they conduct a survey among parents, other relatives, friends, neighbors, and anyone else in the community who cared to expound upon the subject. We then participated in a class-wide, "grand conversation" in which people shared their opinions as well as those gathered in their surveys.
This activity prefaced a lesson I taught a few years ago, as part of a project for the PBS series An American Collection. I was asked to develop lessons for “Cora Unashamed,” a short story written by Langston Hughes and published in 1934.” The story was adapted and included in a collection of made-for-television movies of American literary works.
The setting of the story is a small southern town, Melton, during segregation, the "Jim Crow" era. The racist attitudes that prevailed during this period are characterized by the use of the pejorative term “nigger’ in the story. Hughes intentionally contrasts Cora's strength of character with the racism that threatens to destroy her. He employs the disparaging term twice in the story, explaining early on: "She was.. .the least of the citizens of Melton. . .what the people referred to when they wanted to be polite, as a Negress, and when they wanted to be rude, as a nigger...." Later in the text, Hughes writes, "Cora was the oldest of a family of eight children -- the Jenkins Niggers." This latter description conveys the white town's perception of "The only Negroes in Melton."
As we prepared to discuss the story in my ninth grade College Prep English class, I asked my students to tell what they knew about the treatment of Blacks in the South after slavery. Many of them were familiar with segregation, some from previous reading of literature, others from their own family history. However, some of them, never having experienced the overt racism of the Jim Crow South had trouble perceiving its vicious and deadly nature. At this point I invited those who wanted “extra credit” points to research Plessy vs Ferguson of 1896, the court ruling that legalized segregation with its blatant declaration that “Blacks had no rights which whites were bound to respect.”
The discussion became quite heated at times as students of different racial background argued the pros and cons of the term's usage. Some students favored the stance taken by many popular rappers in their lyrics. They maintained that the colloquial Nigga (or Niggah) is okay, hip and contemporary. They claimed it as affectionate appellation only to be used by blacks among themselves, as in "Niggaz With Attitude (NWA)," a rap group from Compton, California. Some Latino students admitted to using the word also, among themselves and with black friends, as an endearment, as in “What’s up, my Nigga?”
Others vehemently opposed the use of the word in any context, given its racist origins. These students also argued that the seemingly inconsistent (and inherently unfair) directive that whites were not to use the term at any time was good cause to prohibit the use of the word.
After the spirited discussion, we read a poem by Countee Cullen titled "Incident" in which the speaker of the poem, a young child, is hurt when the racial slur is hurled at him by a white child that he perceived as friendly. In addition we read an essay (title) by African American author and social critic Dr.Earl Ofari Hutchinson who deplored the use of the word in any context. Then we viewed a videotaped news feature by a local TV station in which Hutchinson debated the late rapper Eazy E, whose lyrics glorified the term.
At the end of this immersion, I invited students to write "After Thoughts" to reflect, finally, on how they felt about the place of the word nigger in today's language. Many became convinced that the word should not be used at all. Some still insisted on the right to address their "homies" as Nigga or Niggah. Others maintained, as do a lot of young Blacks, that “we have turned the historical, racist term on its face by making it our own.”
Most recently, as part of a unit on how individuals realize their dreams, I taught another piece that centered on the harm of this racial epithet, an excerpt from A Call to Assembly, the autobiography of jazz musician and Yale University professor Willie Ruff . Growing up in a small town in Alabama, the eleven year old “Willie Henry” suffers a jolt to his self esteem and love for language during an incident that occurred when he worked as a helper to the white proprietor of a shoe repair shop. The store owner, whom he initially admired because of his facility with sign language, shocked him by using a racial slur as he explained how to sign to a fellow employee, a deaf teenager. “’Naw, boy!…Your problem is you got to hold that fist up like this.’ I held it up. ‘No! Hold it like this: just like you gonna hit a nigger.’”
Enraged, Willie signs back, “I quit!” and leaves in a huff, spending the next few days pretending to go to work, concealing the fact that he had quit his job from his mother and grandmother with whom he lives. During his self-imposed exile, he mourns the loss of his beloved sign language and his disappointment in his mentor, ”I couldn’t have guessed that I’d miss sign language as much as I did. Most painful of all was my loss of respect for Mr. Steele.”
Steele eventually comes to Willie’s home, and in
a deliberate lie, tells Willie’s grandmother that
Willie “sassed” him. After he leaves, his grandmother
demands to know, “Just tell me what did you say to
the man when you quit that good job?”
When she questions him and finds out that the white man had not directly called Willie the name, she admonishes him, “Let me tell you something, child; this ol’ world is hard. And as long as your hind parts point to the ground, you’re gonna hear white folk use that word and a whole lot worse….you can’t get along in this here world if every time you hear somebody say ‘nigger’…you jump mad and swell up and quit your job and want to go to war….Sometimes you got to stoop to conquer, honey.”
Willie balks at his Grandmother’s admonition, agonizing over whether he should ignore the raw insult to his dignity and return to work as his grandmother has commanded, or to disobey her and refuse to succumb to her “old school” tradition of acquiescing to racism in order to keep a job.
As a way into this story and the inevitable contemplation of the connotation of the pejorative N-word, I created an Anticipation Guide (appendix), incorporating the themes that students would encounter in their reading, including racism and discrimination, human dignity and self-esteem, and parent/child conflicts. Students met in small groups to discuss their responses to the Anticipation Guide, focussing on those issues of most importance to them. I gave this class the same homework assignment I described earlier, to conduct surveys among family, friends, and community. By this time, we had access to technology, and many students captured their interviews on audio and video tape.
Our class-wide discussion also centered on the use of the word in contemporary society. Not surprisingly, the general sentiment was the same as that expressed by the members of my class seven years ago. The students themselves, as well as the participants in their survey, while also acknowledging the word’s racist overtones, continued to express ambivalence about its place in American English vernacular. Kalifornia, now a senior, captured this ambivalence in the essay (reprinted below) that she wrote as an after thought to our reading and discussion. She observed, “The word lives, and as long as people keep using it, we continue to give it power.”
For me, the power came from the lessons my students learned about how dynamic language can be, in literature and in life. As they engaged in open, healthy, and sometimes, brutally frank conversation, the communication that occurred during their passionate discourse not only deepened their understanding of literature, but of one another, as they reflected on issues that extended beyond the text: race, tolerance, recognition and appreciation of diversity, the danger of perpetuating stereotypes, and, most importantly, the universality of many of their own individual human concerns, ideals, hopes, and dreams.
Excerpts from the Opinions on the Use of "N————R" By Members of College Prep English Class and Their Parents (Markham Health Careers Magnet, 1997)
Blacks lower themselves by calling each other niggers. They think it's cool because it's blacks calling blacks niggers, when it's not. It's just as powerful as someone else calling you a nigger. –Anonymous, Latino Man
Many forget what Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and other African American heroes fought for...not to be called out of their names...How can we be equal when we lower ourselves by calling each other niggers...? -- Davet, African American
The white man's idea was passed down from generation to generation that a Nigger is No Good Lazy Poor trash Uneducated a Slave Will Come to Nothing Thief Have no Rights Should Stay Behind Speak when Spoken to Likes to Live on Hand Outs Is Black and Evil. -- Adrian , Belizean ... Father of Kifarrah
I think that when a person of Anglo-Saxon origin uses that word, it is meant to degrade and humiliate... .Usually a lot of malice and hatred is injected into that one word. It shows that they have not yet grasped the concept of equality and togetherness. When I hear a person of African origin use it, I feel sad and angry. Sad that they have not yet understood that by using that word they help to tear down and humiliate .... And angry, for by their using it, they pass that ignorance and lack of respect for each other to the younger kids who see it as okay, and we have a whole race of people unloving of each other and continuing to debase...each other. –-Cornelia, Mother of Kifarara
I call my boyfriend, “My Niggah.” It’s a love thing. —Norma, Mexican American
Nigger: After Thoughts (written after the discussion of “Cora Unashamed”
My thoughts on this word are constantly changing. The further I've been educated and enlightened by others, the more I change. At first I used the word and never thought that much of it...Hearing other insights made me look and search deeper into what I thought the word means. Not what my parents and friends think...I'm in the process of figuring it out.
My thoughts on the word nigger are basically the same as before. I feel it's used in different ways. One being good and the other being negative. Now a question was raised in one of our discussions, "Will you allow a white to call you a nigger in a friendly way?" My conclusion was that I wouldn't because white people have put my ancestors through a lot of grief and self-destruction.
Another question was raised, "Why do you allow your own race to call you a nigger?" The way I look at it is that when my race says, "What's up, Nigga?" it's a greeting. They're not trying to cause self-destruction or put me down. Others say your ancestors fought so hard to get this erased from the vocabulary. This is where I differ from before. The word has changed and evolved into a different meaning. With its similarity to the negative meaning... it's hard for others to accept the word—Brandi, African American
homies and I used to use the word all the time, especially
when we were kickin’ back and talking about stuff,
but then after talking about it in class we made an agreement
to stop saying it. So, now if one of us says nig—the
N-word, we just get to fire on ‘em, you know, just
bust him on the shoulder with our fists, just to remind
him to stop saying it. –Robert, African American
”I have mixed feelings on the appropriate use of the word “NIGGER.” I agree that it appears when black people use the word, it seems to take the evil power of it away, making it “our word.” We put an “A” in place of the “ER” to make “NIGGA” and think that only we (black people) have the right to use it. When white people use it, we take it as a white supremacist word. They seem to give the word the evil power that we react to whenever they use it. And if they do happen to use it in a friendly way, they are in danger of having their intent for saying it confused.
Most black folk thank that white people have no right exploring the word “NIGGA” let alone “NIGGER.” Like they haven’t earned the right to use it al all. They would rather that the subject not be brought up at all, than to talk about it and try to bring some closure to its hostile implication. When we hear the word spoken to us, we get offended and are reminded of the horrid days of slavery, where whites tried to belittle us and cause us anguish by calling us “NIGGER.” Days where they would animadvert us and spit on us for the sheer fun of it. Days where they would make us toil their soil, year in and year out to help them make a profit that we never saw.
Or maybe some folks don’t go that deep. Maybe they think of segregation…[when] the “whites only” and “colored” signs were everywhere. Times where [African Americans] were treated inequitably by whites and had a might hard time fighting for justice and egalitarianism. Times where they hoped and prayed that their demonstrations would somehow make the white people see that black people really were they same as they. That they could see, hear, walk, talk, sing, comprehend and argue jus as well or even better than the whites.
But my question is: If we, as black people, have been struggling for so long to obtain the freedom that allows us to do the same things white people do, why can’t they do the same as us? Is there an unseen, but ever-present wound that bleeds afresh every time the word…is used, whether negatively or positively by the white race? And why would you [Blacks] want to stomp out the use of a word [by others], yet continue to use it? The word lives, and as long as people keep using it, we continue to give it power
Cognitive Strategies Approach to Teaching Toni Cade Bambara’s “The
War of the Wall”
Students to the Tool Kit Analogy:
WAR OF THE WALL by Toni Cade Bambara
“If you lean close,” Lou said, leaning hipshot against her beat-up car, “you’ll get a whiff of bubble gum and kids’ sweat. And that’ll tell you something--that this wall belongs to the kids of Taliaferro Street.” I thought Lou sounded very convincing. But the painter lady paid us no mind. She just snapped the brim of her straw hat down and hauled her bucket up the ladder.
“You’re not even from around here,” I hollered up after her. The license plates on her old piece of car said “New York.” Lou dragged me away because I was about to grab hold of that ladder and shake it. And then we’d really be late for school.
the Gist and Asking Questions:
and Analyzing Author’s Craft:
Reading, Predicting and Evaluating:
Interpretations and Reflecting and Relating:
a Wall of Respect:
Beginning with slave narratives and folktales, African American literature has been rich and varied. After a flowering during the Harlem Renaissance, African American writers continue to explore the human condition in poetry, plays, novels, and memoir. The call for manuscripts asked teachers how have they incorporated this literature into their curriculum and what authors and works spoke powerfully to their students. We asked what effect the inclusion of African American literature has had upon students. In a word, “so what”?
Leif Fearn from San Diego State University sets up the argument with “Americans of African Descent in the Comprehensive Curriculum: They have Names, Lives, and Words,” an essay describing a plan and rationale for inclusion that goes far beyond token representation. Alfee Enciso in “A Poem and a Word galvanize Students into Action” and Korina Jocson in “Urban Youth as Agents in Creating Community Through Poetry” demonstrate how powerful writing can engage traditionally disengaged students. California English is grateful to Jacqueline Woodson and Firoozeh Dumas for contributing to this conversation with their personal essays focusing on why they write and why their particular stories are important to be written and read.
It seems to me that one of the reasons curricular choices become so critical is that students read too few books. The California’s English Language Arts Framework recommends that high school students read “two million words of running text” per year. In the coming school year, try to make sure that a works like those below by African American authors make it onto your reading lists.