I read the word “nigger” out loud, just as James Baldwin had written it in his 1963 book, The Fire Next Time. A shock wave moved through my classroom that eventually spread across campus.
“You can really only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.”
That’s the line from Baldwin that caused some students in the room to gasp. I decided that we needed to have a serious discussion about the use of the term.
“I need to ask you a difficult and dangerous question,” I said. This was my version of offering a “trigger warning.”
“In an academic context,” I asked, “quoting from an author’s work, was it appropriate to use the word ‘nigger’ if the author had written it that way? Wasn’t substituting the euphemistic phrase ‘the N-word’ in these cases, in fact, a disservice to Baldwin’s prose?”
Some students said the word made them uncomfortable, others said that black folks could say the word, but only in certain contexts. Some said that white folks should never say the word and a few said that no one should ever say it. We had what seemed to be a reasonable discussion that ended with a consensus decision for the class never to say the word, even when quoting the author, but always to substitute the euphemism, “the N-word.”
But in thinking that we’d ended with reason and consensus, I had deluded myself. Within two days, I had student monitors attending my courses without invitation, secretly recording class discussions and posting them to YouTube and Facebook with inflammatory headings like “Warning: Racial Slur” and “Phil Adamo Justifying Use of the N-word.” A group of students complained to the Provost, editorials appeared in the campus newspaper, faculty turned against each other, compelled to choose between “supporting our students” and “academic freedom.” I was labeled a racist who probably hung out with white supremacist groups.
Then things got really nasty.
—Now what? Aristotle says to start "in the middle of things." Check. Description of myself, the students, the course? What will this book be about? Aftermath? Must avoid whininess.