ASU Foundation Professor of English and Director of Project Humanities Dr. Neal Lester discusses the N-word, described as “easily the most inflammatory, shocking and historic word in the English language” and its use through the complex discourse of American race relations.
José Cárdenas: "Project Humanities" was first launched in February 2011 with the purpose of examining humanity through the lens of humanities disciplines and science. Part of the department's spring kickoff involved film screenings and talks on topics like the "N" word, described as easily the most inflammatory, shocking and historic word in the English language. Here now to talk is Dr. Neal Lester, ASU professor of English and director of "Project Humanities." This is an inflammatory topic to even be talking about. How did you come about to address this? What was the motivation, when did you start?
Neal Lester: I study race relations and I also study children's literature. I look at what's happening in the world so what I'm teaching or studying has relevance to me and also the students. In 2008, President or then-Senator Obama was running for President. And I noticed that word was proliferating on websites that had specifically to do with him. I thought we were so integrated as a country, I wanted to tease out what's going on. Was this another 60's movement or what was happening.
José Cárdenas: Why did you get involved with this?
Neal Lester: I wanted to know more about it. I heard this was a generational thing, old people with gray hair like mine didn't quite understand that the new generation was using it differently. My research showed that was not the case. This was not a word that was necessarily universally perceived and used by one generation or the other. It showed me also that what we allege as being integrated may not be as integrated as we think. It was a way of uncovering and also discovering.
José Cárdenas: You started to teach the class, and I understand it evolved since then. Part of what you were doing at the beginning was how you teach a class on this subject.
Neal Lester: The class is not about a word. The word is symptomatic about other things. The word is about identity, about self-expression, the word is about performance. All of those things became part of what we talked about, not how to say it or whether you should, it was not a debate. But what is it about language that represents or misrepresents our realities. It really became class about language, identity and performance, but also a class about American history.
José Cárdenas: How do you teach the history of the "N" word and what it means?
Neal Lester: The history is, in my case, since I'm not a historian but rather a literary scholar, is I teach it through themes. We looked at so many nursery rhymes from the 1800s, and minstrel songs that use that word in the second or third verse. Songs that many people my age grew up on and now have become Disney favorites. But it's that third and second verse that we don't sing. And my response to that, it doesn't make it not there because we don't sing it. It doesn't mean it's not there, I look at this not through looking at dates, but rather looking at ways which it has permeated American culture from the 1600s up through the present.
José Cárdenas: What kind of reaction do you get from the students?
Neal Lester: They are surprised, the history is not something they are aware of. It's something they certainly haven't lived through and they feel a disconnection from that. What I try to do, once we know these things, it doesn't mean that the song goes away. It means when that song comes up, you have something else to connect with that song that's historically accurate.
José Cárdenas: You've said the origins of the class were the election campaign of 2009, and you found the word was being used. You were surprised it was being used, at least the way it was. After the President was elected there was a lot of talk about us being in a post-racial era. Are things better or worse?
Neal Lester: I'm still not quite sure what that means. To hear some people say it, and disturbingly so on multiple sides of the racial device, yes, the election of President Obama means that we have looked past race. I don't know necessarily if that's an ideal America is looking toward or trying to achieve. I have noticed there's been more racial violence and more attitudes toward this particular word as it expresses racial violence than in years that I was aware of before 2008. I'm not sure -- the question is how do we measure that progress. Many have said it's because President Obama is in a place many could not imagine that we see more of this kind of racially problematic bias surfacing. I don't know if we're better. I do hope people start to pay attention to language, though, because language such as this reflects how we think or how we don't think.
José Cárdenas: We talk about what people may be trying to achieve. I know one of the commentators, I don't know if he was referring specifically to your class, but this topic, said wouldn't it be great if at some point in the future people had to ask, what does the word mean. From talking to you off stage, you don't think that would be a good thing. You want people to know what it meant. The problem is people don't understand what it means.
Neal Lester: I think we have to figure out who those people are. I think grown people who are people who are older than I, know about the history that's associated with that word. Black people, white people know that. Nobody's confused about what this word means. What's confusing is the generation of students coming into my classroom, the older I get the younger they become. They are really disconnected from things like Jim Crow and the nonsensical laws created about black cemeteries and hospitals and water fountains, they are also disconnected about slavery. We're not suggesting that we are trying to keep history alive. What we are saying is that history is not dead, that history is not something that can be boxed and put on a shelf and put away. That history is still very present today in other manifestations. That surprises the students most.
José Cárdenas: You're not trying to get people to stop using the word, that's not your goal. You want them to understand what they are doing.
Neal Lester: I want people to think about the word. As an English teacher I want people to think about the words they use. I hear young people who are middle school, high school or college say, I don't even think about it,that worries me. If for example we have been so influenced by Disney that we can't imagine Cinderella who isn't blonde and wearing a blue dress, we've been indoctrinated in ways that are very, very dangerous. That means the language is controlling us and we are not controlling the language.
José Cárdenas: What kind of reaction have you gotten from the people in your classes or even some of the lecture audiences you've had?
Neal Lester: The audiences have been different and diverse. Students in the class who self-select -- this is not a required course -- are actually quite amazed at what they discover. They have heard the word and they have family members or friends who use the word and they themselves may have used the word. Once they get through this, they feel like they have some ammunition. But when they hear their friends who are in circles that I'm not in or other African-Americans, they have things to say, maybe you should think about the use of that word. That's been very gratifying. The purpose is not to convince people to do one thing or the other, but to make people more aware. You hope they start thinking, not just for the classroom but also for audiences who are in churches or art centers or beauty shops and barbershops. How do you make people aware.
José Cárdenas: Dr. Neal Lester, thank you for joining us on the show to hopefully accomplish that a little bit.
Neal Lester: Thank you very much.
José Cárdenas: Thank you.
Dr. Neal Lester:Professor and Director, ASU Foundation of English and Project Humanities;