Education Opinion

The POW in Language Power

By Mary Mercer Krogness — October 15, 1997 8 min read

Mary Mercer Krogness has taught a diverse population of K-8 students in public schools in Cleveland, as well as teacher education courses at Cleveland State University. She is the author of Just Teach Me, Mrs. K: Talking, Reading, and Writing With Resistant Adolescent Learners (Heinemann, 1995) and edits “Middle Ground” in English Journal.

Santeel and his classmates adamantly declared that everyone they knew called Arab shopkeepers in their neighborhood A-rabs--as if what everyone in their neighborhood said was the standard. LoShawn, an exceptionally bright boy (certainly not according to school’s usual standards), saw an opportunity. “Yeah, well everybody in here except you, Mrs. K., is a nigger! And we can call each other nigger.” A momentary hush and then appreciative laughter from everyone except for me. I suspect LoShawn wanted to put me on the spot and himself in charge. This boy’s comment told me that he intuitively understood the politics of language, and the power of language to include or exclude.

At this moment I had to make a decision: to rise to LoShawn’s bait and admonish him for using inappropriate language during class, then put a decisive end to this conversation; or to use his incendiary remark and Santeel’s offhand comment about Arabs (they don’t care if they’re called A-rabs) as the focus of a provocative and what ultimately turned into an intensely important language lesson--actually a series of language experiences that allowed my students, who were African-American, and me, the only Caucasian, to inquire about the nature and the nurturing of language.

When my students and I debate an issue, my goal rarely is to build consensus, but rather to engage them in testing their knowledge and beliefs and raise new questions in the bargain. But when a teacher aims to make her classroom a forum for open discussion and inquiry (doing so, of course, in a responsible, respectful way), she cannot expect politically correct responses.

So I scotched my lesson plans for that day and asked my students to tell me more about the “n” word, the epithet that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The boys agreed that just about everyone they knew called each other nigger at times. The girls nodded affirmatively. “And it don’t mean nothin’,” Delray quickly pointed out. LoShawn backed Delray’s theory. I decided to challenge Delray’s argument: that calling another person nigger didn’t mean anything. I reminded my students of this word’s dark history: that it was used by white slave owners who disrespected, denigrated, demeaned, and lynched black people, whom many didn’t even consider human. “How could calling each other nigger not mean anything?” I asked.

I scotched my lesson plans for that day and asked my students to tell me more about the ‘n’ word, the epithet that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Over the years, I’ve heard adolescent African-American boys (rarely girls) call each other nigger. Not usually in anger, rather almost casually; often in a neutral tone of voice. I questioned my students further: “But what if I called any one of you nigger?” I’d asked the loaded question about perhaps the most evil word in our culture and the one so fraught with emotion in an attempt to push my students and me to get to the heart, and I do mean the heart, of this issue. This time Felicia vehemently answered: “That’s different. We"--and she made a sweeping motion with her hand to include her classmates--"can call each other nigger and not mean nothing by it. My mother and father, they call each other nigger. But if you call me nigger, I sure will bring my mother up to school.” She turned to her classmates for confirmation.

“In other words,” I said, “it depends on who’s using this word. Is that right?” I asked. “From what Felicia has just said, it also depends on the person’s race. Is that true?” I waited for an answer. Deontay confirmed what I’d just said, yet he made an important exception: “There’s certain white boys I’m tight with--they call me nigger, and I call them nigger. And that’s cool.” Deontay was adding another dimension to language: human relationships that give members of a person’s inner circle certain privileges not enjoyed by others.

Iseized upon this opportunity to introduce my under- and low-achieving students to the concept of audience--that we gear our conversations and ways of communicating to specific audiences, for example, our families at home and friends in our neighborhood; our teachers and classmates at school. I explained that knowledge and understanding of a person’s culture or ethnic group can guide us to use language sensitively; I pointed out that colossal misunderstandings can result when speakers or writers are ignorant about cultural and linguistic differences.

But my students were intent upon proving that nigger wasn’t any different from any other word. “Rappers like Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and NWA use nigger in all the raps,” everyone agreed. “For them it’s just a word. Remember, it don’t mean nothin’. You know, sticks and stones will break your bones, but names can never hurt you,” Felicia said emphatically. I was especially interested in what Felicia had just said: that people can only be hurt by objects (sticks and stones), but not by words. Their premise--that a word, any word, was only a word--needed to be challenged further.

Eighth graders are, by nature, provocative. They are those undefinable children/nonchildren, who are on the cusp of life, who seek truth, demand justice, and tend to be dogmatic. They’re often cavalier, but they cringe when someone insinuates their lack of courage to think independently. Therefore, I would have to take great care in structuring these conversations about what Jesse T. Sheidlower, the editor of the second volume (H through O) of the Random House Historical Dictionary of Slang, says about the word “nigger": It’s the most provocative word in English.

My students and I had landed quite by accident on an issue that was both timely and timeless, and it offered the potential for teaching and learning about our language and ourselves. We had embarked on a discussion that, had we had more class time, would have allowed us to connect language with our country’s diverse culture, its hundreds of dialects, its racial groups, its evolving history, and our own lives. Raising my students’ and my own awareness of language power and helping all of us become more sensitive to the nuances of language--and specifically of words and dialects not our own--were my chief goals.

For my students and me, talk was not cheap—it was a way for us to try on ideas, test our beliefs, climb into language, and speak our minds and hearts.

Some time after we’d ventured into discussing the word that stirs perhaps more passion and foments more debate than any other, I happened upon an article in The New York Times, “Rap’s Embrace of ‘Nigger’ Fires Bitter Debate,” by Michel Marriott. Rappers and other hip people like my 8th graders defended the use of nigger: The more a word is used, their reasoning went, the more it is defused of its meaning and therefore of its power. African-American leaders, such as the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., strongly objected to using this word, saying that using it in common parlance represents self-hate and a step backwards.

Reading this article aloud to my students and taking adequate time for them to discuss the implications of both sides of the argument apparently didn’t sway them. But when I reminded them that earlier they’d explained to me the importance of who says this word and how it is said, they either fell silent or deflected away from the subject at hand. And the heart of the matter. I judged that, at least for the time being, we’d hashed this subject over long enough, and perhaps it was time for me to sum up what by this point amounted to a half-dozen of these language-rich conversations. During my brief summation, I reminded the class that the language makers and users--all of us--eventually learn more about choosing words according to their different audiences; that a word’s connotation was based on its history and consequently might carry attitudes and evoke emotion. I’d already shared with them Frederic G. Cassidy’s Dictionary of American Regional English, specifically showing them the history and evolving meanings of the familiar word “cool.”

Finally, I asked my students what they’d learned. Most had found out that words have histories; that over time, their meanings evolved; that people who are in power determine the standard dialect for a society; that some words become obsolete and even die, while many new ones are created by the people when the need for new words arises. By making a dictionary of expressions coined out on the street (def, dissin’, jockin’, mackin’, and others), most students understood that language is created by the people and for the people and not by dictionary citators. I’d told them about David Guralnik, the former editor in chief of The New World Dictionary, who, unlike the television commentator and word pundit Edwin Newman, believes that Americans won’t be the death of English, because by using the language the people ensure its health and survival.

A few young people like LoShawn held to their belief that a word such as “nigger” was like any other, and, like the rappers, these students believed that because it was used over and over, the word had lost its original meaning. In response, I raised this question: “If ‘nigger’ is only a word, then why have we spent so much precious class time discussing it?” This time LoShawn didn’t protest. Santeel spoke quietly: “And I found out that Arabs don’t like being called A-rabs.”

For my students and me, talk was not cheap--it was a way for us to try on ideas, test our beliefs, climb into the language, and speak our minds and hearts. And as in any good intellectual workout, we all had sown the seeds for yet more inquiry and conversation.

A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 1997 edition of Education Week as The POW in Language Power