Teaching TKAM: The N-word Doesn’t Have to Be a Literary Landmine

In the before times, I went to a Drake and Migos concert.  I am pretty sure I went alone.  I think this because all I remember is being surrounded by very young white people, whom I could not stop watching because I was sure one of them would say the n-word.  My teacher-mother mode does not have an off button, and I was absolutely going to admonish someone publicly. Once I caught them. I was ready. Perhaps they sensed my impending rage because no one slipped up.  Eventually I was reassured section 401 was a safe space and I relaxed, content to merely model how to enjoy a rap concert without mouthing a racial slur. 

This same tense anticipation is felt by Black students in English classrooms across the country. At a previous school, a white and Latinx teacher said the n-word in class while reading some book, and the Black students came to me highly agitated by the experience.  In the end, the administration supported the teacher and an ambiguous English department policy to allow teachers to make those decisions in their own classrooms according to their own rules of English-teacherdom.  While not surprising, it was very disappointing.  I am not sure why teachers keep dealing with this word incorrectly.  The rules feel pretty simple.  Willful ignorance must not be in short supply. 

Although this is my first time teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, it is not my first run-in with the literary N-word. I have taught a book with the N-word before: March: Book One, the graphic novel biography by John Lewis. At that time I was with a thoughtful group of educators who pooled resources to make sure every 6th grader learned the history of the word, the context in which John Lewis presented it, and our clear rules that no middle school student should even consider uttering it because that would never be appropriate. Yes, it was in their music and other media. Yes, there were Black artists and intellectuals making different decisions. But most of them weren’t Black and none of them were old enough or wise enough to make a deliberate decision to intentionally subvert linguistic history.

This summer I read a lovely book by a Black author, Midnight Without A Moon. It’s about the South and Emmett Till and the Great Migration – important topics. I remember balking when I arrived at the use of the n-word between members of a Black family. I am not sure I would teach that book in my current setting. These things are nuanced.

The rules have been very clear this year, which is so relaxing.  It is a department policy that the word is never read aloud by anyone on campus.  Our clear protocol is to skip over the word and to offer in advance the pages on which it appears.  I model this by reading the first few pages where it appears aloud.  

This actually led to a great teachable moment.  A friend posted this meme yesterday on Facebook. I snagged it and put in our powerpoint presentation.  When we got to the part in TKAM where Ms. Stephanie Crawford is describing what Nathan Radley is going to do to the Black person he perceives is in his collard patch, I paused, showed this illustration, and asked what Atticus, who doesn’t want his children to use the n-word, might say to Stephanie Crawford, who is currently using the n-word in front of them. They chose a phrase and practiced.  English class disguised as upstander training!

Now, 7th graders are a little bit more primed for nuance so we did present materials addressing the argument that there is a n-word double standard.  The social comedians were helpful here. This video by Francesca Ramsey and this video by J Smooth were very compelling.  For emphasis we quoted this Ta-Nehisi Coates article. 

One thing I want to caution against is making any argument that says Black people who use the n-word simply don’t know better or are ignorant or don’t study history. As Maury would say, “That is a lie.”  The first time I heard the n-word was from my uncle who is brilliant, funny, and caustic.  He never means the n-word kindly. He always means it.  Some of our finest millennial writers and intellectuals also use it.  You can have a whole conversation with Damon Young, Issa Rae, and Beyonce about why. I don’t speak for them, but they use the n-word in lots of different ways, and I am confident they 1) know their history 2) are smart as hell and 3) have a purpose. 

My students were satisfied with hearing that Black people disagree about its use and that, when of age, each Black person makes their own choice.  There isn’t anything unfair about that because context and relationship always rule language use.  If anyone is concerned about “justice”, I have a few ideas of where they can turn their attention. The world is in no shortage of disparity, and we could use a few good allies. 

So here are few guidelines in case you need some:

  1. Tell the students the n-word appears in the book
  2. Tell the students NO ONE is going to say the n-word out loud in this class. 
  3. Acknowledge that seeing it written can still be hurtful
  4. Tell the students NO ONE is going to say the n-word out loud in this class. 
  5. Review the history of the n-word
  6. Tell the students NO ONE is going to say the n-word out loud in this class. 
  7. Acknowledge that there are Black people who say the n-word outside of this school. Clarify that this is Black people’s business and if one identifies as Black they are welcome to formulate an opinion and make a decision for themselves. We don’t control other people, and other people don’t control us. 
  8. Tell the students NO ONE is going to say the n-word out loud in this class. 
  9. Use the above mentioned resources to address any non-Black person who thinks not being able to say the n-word is “unfair”.  Ask them to re-direct their sense of justice where it matters.
  10. Make sure NO ONE says the n-word in the class and have a clear policy in place to restoratively address the harm done if they (or you) do. 

My kids still want to know why we have to read this book where the n-word appears over 90 times (either Harper Lee wanted us to know it was ubiquitous in 1930’s Alabama or she was having way too much fun).  I tell them I don’t know yet.  In their lives, they will continue to encounter diverse texts that have this word. Many will actually be by Black people. But if they are at a Drake concert singing along to questionable lyrics and my face pops up in their head thus preventing them from unleashing the fury of the lady sitting two rows back, I will have done my job. 

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