When I was a high school English Teacher,
one of my most important lessons was
“Abolish the ‘N’ Word,”
my bravest days,
were the days I unpacked the word “Nigger”
for my mostly black and brown students
and spelled it out on the whiteboard in
black dry-erase marker,
N I G G E R
the word resonating off the reflective fluorescent lights,
a billboard of quiet horror,
hoping to shock,
hoping to understand,
hoping to enlighten,
hoping to drop the words from their mouths,
fallen forgiven tongues.
Do not attempt this exercise
if you did not walk the same streets,
if there is not a gun shot
or gang sign
under your teacher belt,
if your students don’t trust you,
if experience is not holstered to your hip
like gold, and you cannot spell blood with your fingers.
What do I know of “Nigger”
to be able to write it in my own hand?
With the stroke of my own tongue,
“Today, we are going to talk about the word Nigger.”
I said it out loud when the students first sat down,
their shock and intrigue permeating the chatter,
their eyes meeting the word face to face in front of them.
Moments before, in the hallway,
the same word flowed so easily off their tongues,
like exclamation points ending every sentence
spit from their sharpened lips,
that they did not even flinch anymore,
like the word was not a dagger,
like the word was not brought over tied to a slave, tied to a boat.
They repeated the same story in every class,
“Nah, miss, Nigga is different from Nigger.”
“Is it?” I asked.
Is there not a history that is pulled like a dragging chain
with every utterance of that word?
Does that word not hang from the end of a noose,
choking, gasping for one more breath?
Is that word not whipped into the backs of every slave boy,
and raped into the screams of young slave girls?
I showed them a slideshow on lynching.
They already knew the letter K.
We listened to “Strange Fruit,”
and when they realized what blood on the leaves was implying,
a few hung their heads down,
We read and analyzed
“I Have A Dream” for it’s figurative language,
for its power in repetition,
for its penetrating metaphors and symbolism,
found reasons for its transformative and lasting impression,
and they began to realize
“Nigga” and “Nigger” were cousins that
were too closely related to forget
where they came from.
Isadora Indiana Jones was
a transfer student that blew in from New Orleans
with Hurricane Katrina.
She challenged my sanity and self-control
when, in the middle of Dr. King’s speech, she yelled,
“Who cares about saying Nigga?!”
It was the way she said the word that made it linger in the air,
her face twisted, eyebrow cocked,
her big lips curled in a fit of disapproval with my white-sounding mouth.
I still hear it in slow-motion in my memory.
“Martin Luther King a Nigga. I’m a Nigga. She’s a Nigga. We ALL Niggas.”
I screamed, “STOP!”
Something took over me,
my fight or flight was looking more like FIGHT
and I wanted to actually slap her.
I went out into the hallway
and punched the wall,
my knuckles making an impression on a
“Just Say No” poster.
I walked back in to their stunned faces.
It was the only time I was visibly upset,
the only time I almost wanted to just say, “fuck it,
keep the fucking word,
taste the sweat and blood and burning of its history,
and label it friend, label it homeboy,
without ever realizing
what you are actually saying.”
I didn’t give up.
I would not stand for the burning of a bridge
I was using my heart to build.
By the end of the week, 237 students
signed a pledge to Abolish the N Word,
to stop saying it around their friends,
to tell their friends and families
that dropping an “-er” and adding an “-a”
does not dismiss hundreds of years of oppression,
does still sound like chains.
The next week, more made the pledge.
They learned a LIFE lesson.
These are the hardest lessons to teach.
These are the lessons that are not in the suggested syllabus.
These are the lessons that Teachers do not get paid enough for,
but the lessons that ultimately mean the most.
I risked my job doing this lesson.
I dropped a pebble into the gaping black mouth of history,
and tried to make sense of it all, just using my heart,
just using the hope I had for their futures.
In the end, they learned there are many other ways to say friend.