The N Word


In the fall of 2010, I went back to my boarding school to give a reading and be a visiting writer¬†In the last class I visited, students asked me what it had been like growing up “in terms of” discrimination. I said I thought racism had been worse then, more diffuse.

I grew up (at the top of the middle class?) in Roslyn, Long Island. I remembered nothing explicitly racist ever being said, But, I told them, the most shameful experience of my life occurred when I was in third grade (? – i.e., 1951) and a friend and I crouched in the bushes of our home, bushes bordering on the street, and in the dusk of some fall day saw an African-American woman walking along the street.

We presumably knew she was a “domestic” going home after work. We looked quickly at each other and then yelled “Nigger!” at her.

The woman turned and I could feel her eyes burning into ours, though she couldn’t have seen us in the bushes. I feel those eyes burning into me now. My conclusion, which I shared with the students, was that racism must have been in the air we breathed– We knew the word was shameful, but yet somehow endorsed by our families. We knew to whom it applied.

About two weeks later, I received a letter from the class, written by one of and signed by all of the students and the teacher. After praising my reading, and thanking me for coming, the student got to the heart of the matter and said that a) nobody in the class understood why I had told the story I did, and I should be careful in the future to tell only stories everyone understood and b) that they had been taught, believed, and knew that no one was ever justified in using the N word, which I had done, and which I should never in the future do again.

I wrote back a letter in which I advised her that, first of all, I thought one should beware of advising someone of a different culture what they should and shouldn’t do until one had given thought to the context of that different culture and that I thought she was of a different culture than I given her young age. Second, I said that it was impossible to write (or tell) stories that would prevent “misunderstanding.” (Hence the need for English classes.)

Most importantly, I ¬†told her that in my opinion I had not “used” the N word but had quoted my past use of it when I was a youngster, within the context of a story that said how shameful the incident had been, and how it demonstrated the racism “in the air.” I also wished aloud that she and the other students (and the teacher!) had spoken up during the class period (there was plenty of time) and challenged my story. I said I hoped her teacher would in the future, if not apparently up until then, encourage students to ask questions when they don’t understand something. I lamented the dialogue that could have taken place had someone expressed doubt or confusion.

I wrote up my experience at the school, the student’s letter and my response in the form of an essay, and posted it on Speakwithoutinterruption. I don’t think I got comment- maybe a remark or two.

A year or so later the site crashed and now I have no record of that essay. I post my summary here in the hopes of re-establishing the record.

I would be grateful for comment. (I am saving a copy of this.)