African Americans; Education; Higher; Popular culture; Race relations; Racism; United States


In the fall of 2008, I dared to teach a fifteen-week course that focused on a single word, a word arguably like no other, a word adorned with these emotionally colorful descriptors: “the most explosive of racial epithets,” “our cruelest word,” “the most toxic in the English language,” “the most troubling word in our language,” “almost magical in its negative power,” “six simple letters that convey centuries of pain, evil and contempt,” “an almost universally known word of contempt,” “occupies a place in the soul where logic and reason never go,” and “the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language.” I have since taught the course three more times.

Because of the overwhelming success of my multimedia and multi-genre undergraduate course, “The N-word: Lessons Taught and Lessons Learned,” both for my students and for me, and because of the peculiar and alleged post-racial American historical moment in which we now are living with the first African American U.S. President, this reflective pedagogical piece, “The N-Word: Lessons taught and Lessons Learned,” is particularly relevant and timely. Indeed, although the use and history of the “nigger” with its various interracial, intraracial, and intracultural associations have garnered public attention in American classrooms, in the American media, and in American popular culture, deeper implications surrounding this word, the word “nigger” has not had the kind of sustained classroom exploration my semester -long course afforded. Putting this single word under a critical microscope underscored for me and my students the fact that ideas about language and identity, about language and public performance, and about language and American race relations inextricably connect youths and elders, blacks and whites, males and females, children and adults, the international and the domestic, past and present, public and private, and the personal and the political.

Specifically, this pedagogical reflection offers a social and political context for the course, an intellectual rationale for the course, specific and detailed course content, students’ responses to the course, students' and teacher's overarching lessons gleaned from the course, and bibliographic suggestions for classroom practitioners and critically curious others navigating the ocean of materials on the word that journalist Farai Chideya has called “the all-American trump card, the nuclear bomb of racial epithets.”