Notes on “Teaching the N-Word”

Eight years ago, Delen Arts, was an idea, unformed and undiscovered, and Emily Bernard, a Black professor,  was teaching an all-White class at the University of Vermont.

Seven years ago, The American Scholar, printed Bernard’s “Teaching the N-Word.”

Four years ago, Delen Arts contributors Zahra Darby, Maria Luna, and I met in Newark, New Jersey, new students at Rutgers MFA program in Creative Writing. I was certainly examining my cohort for other people of color, and I’m fairly certain I can say the same for both Zahra and Maria.

Today, Emily Bernard, Zahra, Maria, and I are all educators. We teach different subjects to different students, and we each approach race and identity differently with our different students, but we each approach race and identity as a woman of color.

Bernard writes:

“What about ‘nigger’?” I ask. “If we’re talking about the importance of transforming hateful language, what about that word?” From my bookshelf I pull down Randall Kennedy’s book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, and turn it so its cover faces Eric. “Nigger,” in stark white type against a black background, is staring at him, staring at anyone who happens to be walking past the open door behind him.

Over the next 30 minutes or so, Eric and I talk about “nigger.” He is uncomfortable; every time he says “nigger,” he drops his voice and does not meet my eyes. I know that he does not want to say the word; he is following my lead. He does not want to say it because he is white; he does not want to say it because I am black. I feel my power as his professor, the mentor he has so ardently adopted. I feel the power of Randall Kennedy’s book in my hands, its title crude and unambiguous. Say it, we both instruct this white student. And he does.

Bernard examines her relationship with her students, and she examines her relationship with the word nigger. She examines them through a time and space, through dialogue and self-reflection, and, most importantly, through teaching and learning. As three women of color, Bernard’s words pushed us to examine how we view ourselves as educators and how we approach “Teaching the N-Word.” Read our responses here.

Maria Luna:

It’s not that I think Emily Bernard should not have discussed this topic, one so precarious and booby-trapped, but her lesson, coupled with the essay she produced after the events took place, is clearly a process of cathartic exploration.  Exploration of her past, present, and future through writing.  Very Didion-esque. The problem is the one platform, the classroom. … Through the cathartic process of discussion and ultimately documenting, perhaps now Bernard understands why her students and I do not wish to repeat the word—a word that so continuously pokes at the hot embers of black pain.  Read more here.

Zahra Darby:

Teachers always bring themselves to the classroom. The space is so intimate that it cannot study masks for long, and so I think that Emily Bernard’s students saw through her “lie” of casually discussing the pain and pleasure—for some, the word melts in their mouths—of the American conundrum, nigger. Yes, her students saw that their conversation was not really a teaching moment, but was in fact, a conversation—just an exchange. … My personal policy is to close the door on the word, to lock it up for daily use, pulling it out every now and then just to show I’m not afraid to use it. Read more here.

Jean YeoJin Sung:

There’s a tendency, however, for my students to be uncomfortable when I bring up race and inequality. This is when I question myself. … This is violence, and it’s backed me into a corner. This is why I speak. This is why I write. This is why I teach. This is when I tell myself, “Screw it.” I see through this colorblind ideology, and I call bullshit. People need to learn to embrace the discomfort. I’ll talk about race if no one else will, even knowing that I may very well be pushed to the margins for doing it. It is here that I am Bernard’s apologist. Bernard reminds us how some of us tiptoe carefully, trying to avoid setting off the landmines hidden beneath the surface of an American colorblind pastoral. We do it to cross a border to a place that’s different from where we began. … Read more here.