Thursday, January 13, 2011

The N-Word

The latest controversy in the Waterbury schools (I say "latest" because it seems like there's a new controversy almost every week) involves the use of the n-word in a play which will be performed at the Waterbury Arts Magnet School. The controversy has reached the notice of The New York Times, which wrote about it in the ArtsBeat blog.

The play in question is August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," the second installment in The Pittsburgh Cycle, which the Pulitzer Prize winning author wrote to chronicle the African-American experience decade by decade. When it opened at the Yale Repertory in 1987 and again on Broadway in 1988, the cast included Angela Bassett, L. Scott Caldwell and Delroy Lindo (who earned a Tony nomination).

Wilson's play uses the language of the early 20th century, because it is a historical drama. Unlike the pop culture stars of today's world, Wilson uses the n-word to remind us (and for kids, to teach them) why this word is so unpleasant and disturbing. Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh and, according to a short biography, he had full experience of being called a nigger by racists who used the word to intimidate and demean him. That racism led him to drop out of high school, choosing instead to study on his own. His use of the n-word in this play is necessary for both historic accuracy and to convey the racism that was rampant at the time.

The average teenager today hears the n-word constantly, in music and in everyday speech. I have overheard young children calling each other niggers, and referring to themselves as niggers. I have heard it used by adults wanting to sound "cool". This is the youth culture today.

I'd much rather have the kids at the Arts Magnet School learn about the history of the word through this play than to continue to use it blindly in everyday speech.

The controversy that has arisen will potentially have some benefit. The kids performing the play are now acutely aware of what a powerfully negative word it is. And they are probably learning a thing or two about censorship in a country that constitutionally protects freedom of speech.

1 comment:

Debi said...

R -- What great insite. This was wonderfully researched and written. Hope all get to read it. As always -- DSB