Words Matter

A local independent school is encouraged to include more literature in its curriculum that reflects the Black experience. Wanting to be inclusive the school conducts studies and hears recommendations from its community. Of the newly included literature, a well-regarded play by August Wilson, Fences, is added to the school’s curriculum and is read aloud in 9th grade English classes. Because of Wilson’s liberal use of a derogatory word referring to Blacks, the students are directed to say “n-word” when reading the word Wilson uses. Perhaps the school feels that it has made progress in race relations, but as a retired independent school English teacher and administrator, I disagree for several reasons.

First of all, while Wilson’s play is highly acclaimed, I question if it is it a valid choice for the 9th grade, or even  high school? I suggest that the play would be better used in the 11th or 12th grade curriculum, if at all. This is  not an argument about the merits of Fences, but the appropriateness of it for this level. Even if it is used in an independent high school, how it is read and examined should be carefully considered and monitored. While students may be able to read the words in assigned literature, that does not mean that they can understand their music.

Secondly, the decision to read Wilson’s play in class is a poor use of class time.  Students in independent schools purchase their textbooks so each student has his or her own copy to read and study outside of the classroom. By reading the text outside of class, class time is made available for discussion and thoughtful examination of the play and what it has to say concerning the Black experience.

Third,  I think the students should not be allowed to repeat the pejorative that Wilson uses—in any form- and saying  “n-word” is a form of that word. During my teaching career I prohibited students from repeating any word used in a text that was derogatory or vile or both. My students and I discussed how and when and why any such word would be used in a text, but its use by an  author did not give us  license to use it in our class discussion. Language, as Orwell writes, is political. That is a lesson students need to learn.

Finally, two of the most powerful words I know are ones referring to females. One rhymes with witch and the other with runt. They carry power for me because, as far as I know, there are no such words used to refer to or used to describe males. Now imagine a class of about 15 males and two or three females that is orally reading a poem or play in class and the reader says “b-word” or “c-word” instead of the actual word. It does not require much experience teaching or being a parent to understand how those girls would feel, and what message that method sends to all the students. The word is present for the author’s purpose, not ours, and those words and their substitutes carry power. To say or write “n-word”  or “b-word” or “c-word” seems to me to be a self-serving cause which allows those in power to disparage the disenfranchised. An author must use language that reflects his or her characters. Fine. But we do not need to offer some substitute for the word(s). Instead, I suggest all readers of a text allow recognition for its presence and its purpose while not causing discomfort to any student(s) by any form of repetition.

The adult word usages surrounding the oral reading of Fences in the classroom of the independent school demonstrate the power of words. A parent uses strong, offensive language when she perceived her complaints about the play’s use were being ignored. She posts her language on the web while angry and later expresses regret for her words. The school does not expel her son but terminates his contract for enrollment. The words of the adults, like those of Wilson, carry much weight. But a 14-year-old pays the price, not the users of the  words.

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