The N-word: Does Context Matter?

Hank Kalet
Aug 9 · 6 min read

One of My Former Teachers is Under Investigation for Quoting James Baldwin

This press release from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which I initially saw on the Facebook page of the poet Cyrus Cassell caught my eye. A professor at the New School in New York was being investigated because she quoted James Baldwin. I knew the person in the accompanying photo, knew the professor, studied with the professor.

To quote The Fire directly:

Author James Baldwin wrote that Americans need to conduct an “unflinching assessment of the record” in reckoning with the nation’s racial past. But when a professor used Baldwin’s writing to do just that, her university launched a racial discrimination investigation against her.

Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education calls on The New School to stand by its laudable but broken “legacy of academic freedom, tolerance, and free intellectual exchange” by immediately dropping its investigation of professor Laurie Sheck.

I studied with Sheck as an undergraduate at Rutgers, where she taught creative writing in the 1980s. I had been writing poetry, but lacked any real direction in my study of the art or any sense of what made a work a poem or not. Sheck, who I had for two semesters, was encouraging and demanding, making it clear that our growth as writers would depend on our willingness to engage with literature and to question our assumptions about the world.

Her class allowed me to make my first important leap forward as a poet, as she forced me to look at how I used language and invested me with a sense of craft for the first time in my writing life. It is a lesson I’ve carried with me for the last 30-plus years as a writer.

At the New School, Sheck “teaches a graduate course on ‘radical questioning’ in writing,” which “includes works by prominent African-American writers that examine racial discrimination.” One of the assigned readings, “The Creative Process” by Baldwin “argues that Americans have ‘modified or suppressed and lied about all the darker forces in our history’ and must commit to ‘a long look backward whence we came and an unflinching assessment of the record.’”

The ensuing discussion of the essay included a focus on Baldwin’s statement, “I am not your nigger,”

and Sheck noted how the title of an Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” alters Baldwin’s words. She asked her students what this change may reveal about Americans’ ability to reckon with what Baldwin identified as “the darker forces of history.”

This, eventually, led to an investigation — based on a student complaint — about supposedly “discriminatory conduct,” which seems absurd, an investigation that continues.

I posted a story on the incident that was published by Higher Ed to a discussion group of which I’m a part, seeking to understand how Sheck’s intentions in assigning Baldwin resulted in a complaint. The discussion was enlightening, if ultimately not satisfying. The group is diverse — black, white, brown — and there was a lot of focus on how the N-word lands like a bullet for most African Americans when coming from a white mouth, and that, because of this, its use must be off-limits. Period.

And yet, this seemed to put instructors at a disadvantage — and would likely lead to the exclusion of important works by African Americans because they use the word in various ways. This led me to ask how we teach these works — my example is Countee Cullen’s poem “Incident,” which is about the use of the word and how it shocks and hurts, creating a lifelong emotional scar.

The answers were interesting — having the students read the works themselves and not reading them aloud, engaging black students before hand to see what they think — but none of the responses, none of the alternatives seemed very satisfying to me. I understand that I, as a white instructor teaching minority students, must be conscious of how my use of language will be seen. But avoiding it in this case seems to beg the question.

The N-word is not a word that I use in my own life — but it is a word that exists and discussing writings by Cullen, Baldwin, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison or even Colson Whitehead without acknowledging its use or shying away from it seems unfair to those writers and to the students. How can one discuss “Incident,” which is a poem about the use of the word in question and its dehumanizing impact, without acknowledging the word? And what of more current literature? I’m reading Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, and the word is repeated throughout — by whites as an epithet and by blacks in the book as a simple comment. The word is there. It has a history, one most whites still don’t understand, and one they absolutely need to understand. Not engaging with the actual word, it seems to me, may offer some short-term protection to some but I don’t see how it addresses the larger questions the word raises and the long-term fight against a dehumanization that is taking on new forms.

It’s not just about this word, after all, but also about the images that have been used — and that continue to be used — to dehumanize blacks and others. The N-word has fallen from polite conversation — thankfully — and yet the stereotypes trotted out in the media and the words used by racists in the N-word’s place continue to do real damage to black men and women. Think of the Willie Horton ad in 1988. Or Trayvon Martin, whose image in a hoodie, was seized upon by the racists at Fox News because it fit the equation “black teens in hoodies=thugs=unsaid N-word.” Reread Darren Wilson’s description of his encounter with and his shooting of Michael Brown — no n-word, but a lot of other racial tropes in play. Basically, a police officer need not use or even have heard the word, may not have a racist bone in his or her body (to use Trump’s dopey language) tl engage in racial profiling and stereotyping that, in turn, leads to shootings like those in Ferguson and elsewhere. The value of young black lives has been compromised by the historical use of the word, to be sure, but they also are devalued through so many other avenues.

There is a parallel with the Jewish experience — an imperfect one, but it’s one I connect with. One can can discuss (must discuss) the uses of the Protocols of that Elders of Zion, the Fagin/moneylender stereotypes, the Rothschild (now Soros) slur — provided one is discussing them within the context of their history and their nefarious uses (the implied conspiracy of Jewish money controlling the world). This is different than using the N-word, to be sure, but it is much closer in character to its use than the standard “kike” slur because these conspiracies and this language (present in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Pound, Eliot, Dickens) have been used to separate Jews from the rest of society to mark us as different, and, along with the “Blood libel,” have served as specific inspiration for pogroms and extermination. This history is deeply rooted and skews the ways Jews are seen, and its discussion can cause us serious anxiety. But I think we have to discuss it — to understand Trump, to understand the people who chant “Jews will not replace us,” and so on.

I don’t want to sound like I’m white-splaining. It’s not my intention. I am not the expert here at all. But these images and this language exists and I’m struggling to see how might understand and push back against them — both from history and those that appear today — unless we engage with them and critique them? That was the original intention of my post.

I’ve come to realize, after reading all of the comments, considering them and internalizing them, that context has to matter, and I’m worried that attempting to hide these words and images, to prevent their discussion in academic settings where we encourage students to come to them critically, to question what they are, how they’ve been used and why will only make the use of these words and images more powerful. I also worry that we infantilize those we seek to protect by hiding the language and the imagery as if it had never existed. I don’t think it’s as simple as “don’t use it,” and I don’t think academics should be on the firing line for the use of these words and images.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worth talking about. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical. Clarity and truth working against tribalism.

Hank Kalet

Written by

Poet, professor & longtime newsman, who covers economic & other issues for NJ Spotlight and other publications. Check out my blog @

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worth talking about. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical. Clarity and truth working against tribalism.

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