The use of the controversial N-Word tends to strike a chord for many Americans. Some recognize the N-Word as an unmentionable term and a purely racial slur. In fact, they believe the N-Word should be completely redacted from all features of society. However, the N-Word is still a significant part of American history and one cannot simply erase the negative aspects of history. The truth is that there are many very rational reasons for not censoring the N-Word from the vocabulary of society. Perhaps the best reason is to provide students with proper historical context. Furthermore, the N-Word has been reclaimed and transformed by the black community emerging as an expression of endearment rather than a derogatory term. While some condemn the use of the N-Word, it is necessary to provide a proper historical context for students and to bestow a means by which the black community can subvert its grim history, planted in racism, slavery, and the systematic oppression of black individuals, and reclaim the word for themselves.
In the discussion regarding the censorship of the N-Word, one divisive issue has been whether or not the N-Word should remain in classical, historical books. This ongoing debate is particularly concerned with books commonly found in high school curricula. In fact, according to the American Library Association, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one of the most challenged books in the nation (“100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990–1999.”). Although this exuberant adventure story has been widely considered one of the greatest American novels ever written, it has attracted considerable controversy based on its language. More specifically, the frequent usage of the N-Word in this classic has drawn intense scrutiny and has sparked a relentless debate. On one hand, concerned parents and educators proclaim that the N-Word is an extremely derogatory term and its repetitive use in the novel contributes to a racist narrative. Furthermore, they fear recurrent exposure to the N-word in the classroom will encourage racism outside of the classroom. Therefore, they contend the N-Word should be censored as it is unfit for the developing minds of students. On the other hand, passionate teachers and parents argue that the meaning and context of the N-Word must be openly discussed to be understood. They insist that educators should teach the N-word with the proper historical context encompassing white supremacy, lynching, economic suppression, segregation, and discrimination. For example, in an uncensored quote depicting racism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck remarks, 'He had an uncommon level head for a n*****” (Twain 76). In this statement, Twain deliberately uses Huck, a product of society, to casually wield the N-Word to highlight society’s preconceived notions of a supposedly inferior race. Replacing the N-Word with a less precise euphemism would diminish the impact that Twain intended to have on the reader as well as reduce the reader’s understanding of the historical context. My view is that instead of censoring the N-Word, students must be given appropriate historical circumstances so they can deconstruct it, discuss it, and develop a deeper comprehension. According to Randall Kennedy, Professor of Law at Harvard University, “...It is important to provide a context within which presentation of that term can be properly understood. It is also imperative, however, to permit present and future readers to see for themselves directly the full gamut of American cultural productions, the ugly as well as the beautiful, those that mirror the majestic features of American democracy and those that mirror America’s most depressing failings”(Kennedy). In this powerful statement, Kennedy asserts that veiling the N-Word does not simply erase America’s dark history. Ignoring racism and censoring hate does not make them disappear. In actuality, censorship only allows underlying issues to fester and grow. Instead of being exposed to less precise euphemisms, bringing the N-Word with its historical context into the light allows parents, educators, and children to confront race and racism in a manner that stimulates empathy and conversation.
Another relevant matter is whether or not one’s race should dictate their usage of the N-Word in society. The vast majority of Americans, strongly denounce the N-Word when intentionally used as a disparaging insult. But, the issue becomes more complicated when considering its distinct usage in the American vernacular, especially in the black community. The prominent usage of the N-Word in this group has ignited much argumentation. On one side, there are Americans of all races that argue that the N-Word is demeaning no matter who says it. They emphasize that the hurtful and offensive connotations of the N-Word can never be reconciled and should be left in the past. On the other side of the argument, many black folks contend that the N-Word is commonly used as a term of endearment. These Americans firmly believe reclaiming a word used by their oppressors and transforming it into a term of solidarity amongst the black community is empowering. I find this side of the argument to be the most compelling. After all, as summed up by an African-American woman, “...They [blacks] transformed nigger to signify the varied and complex human beings they knew themselves to be. If the word was to disappear totally from the mouths of even the most liberal of white society, no one in that room was naive enough to believe it would disappear from white minds. Meeting the word head-on, they proved it had absolutely nothing to do with the way they were determined to live their lives (Naylor).” Rather than ignoring the word and hoping it would fade into the background, black Americans confronted the issue head-on and reduced the power the N-Word held over them. By taking a radioactive word that inflicted centuries of pain upon their ancestors, and reclaiming it as a colloquial term, the black community has shown its strength and resilience. Censoring the N-Word would be a discredit to the healing black community that worked so hard to reclaim it for themselves.
All in all, the N-Word is a contentious topic. Although the usage of the N-Word carries strong opposition in society due to its harrowing history, connection to racism, and derogatory connotations; there are valid reasons as to not completely censor the word from society. History, no matter how good or bad, must be remembered. In classic novels, censoring the N-Word is sugarcoating the past and is betraying the conscious decision of the author to accurately depict that era. By giving students the entire historical context of the N-Word, they are given the opportunity to face racism while fostering meaningful discussion and empathy. Moreover, it is important to acknowledge the fact that the black community has transformed a word of racial prejudice into a word of endearment amongst themselves. Reclaiming and redefining the N-Word allows the black community to subvert its grim history.
- “100 Most Frequently Challenged Books: 1990–1999.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues, American Library Association, 18 July 2017, http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/100-most-frequently-challenged-books-1990–1999.
- Kennedy, Randall. “A Note On The Word ‘Nigger.’” Black History, Harper's Weekly, https://blackhistory.harpweek.com/1Introduction/RandallKennedyEssay.htm.
- Naylor, Gloria. “The Meanings of a Word.” English, Union County College, http://faculty.ucc.edu/english-chewning/naylor.htm .
- Twain, Mark, et al. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Fearon Education, 1991.