Should The N-Word Be Given a Green Pass in School?

By Morgan Fletcher –

“Your teacher uses that word in class?”

It may come as a shock to individuals outside the school setting that the “n-word” is commonly referenced in classes when it can be applied.  English and history teachers in Penn Manor make use of the word during certain lessons and when it appears in works of literature.

Use of the highly controversial word has sparked disagreement in recent years over the tolerance of such a racially-offensive term in schools and a number of libraries have banned books containing the word in attempts to prevent conflict.

New versions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn eliminate the n-word. Photo courtesy

Teachers in Penn Manor, however, believe that it is not an issue to skirt around and that talking about a derogatory term in class prompts an important teaching point.

“It can be beneficial,” said Penn Manor English teacher Michelle Wolfersberger.  “I don’t think literature that includes the word should be excluded.”

She is, though, sensitive to the fact that some students may be offended if the word is openly used in class and she stresses the importance of learning the etymology of the word before proceeding to use it.

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the fourteenth most banned/challenged book according to the American Library Association.

A new version of Huckleberry Finn is being printed by Alabama publisher NewSouth Books that changes the n-word used 219 times in the book to “slave.”

“With Huck Finn, it’s something that has to be taught before learning about,” said Wolfersberger.  She believes that personal choice is never a bad thing and that students should be able to opt out if they feel uncomfortable.

Wolfersberger said that she never feels uncomfortable teaching the word and has never had any personal issues.

Penn Manor is a predominately white school and to some minority students, when the topic of race comes up in class, it can become an awkward situation.

“I felt like all eyes were on me,” said Teon Lee, regarding how he felt when his class watched The Great Debaters in school and the n-word came up.

History teacher Todd Mealy sympathizes with why many people, especially African-Americans, can become offended when the n-word is used in literature.

Mealy takes a different approach when he discusses the n-word as he highlights it from a historical perspective.

“Yeah, there are a couple ways to go about it,” he said.

The "n-word" appears 219 times in Huck Finn. Photo courtesy Alyssa Byers

He begins with a disclaimer and addresses how the word evolved by highlighting the contemporary words used for black people throughout history such as “colored,” “African” and “Negro.”

Mealy advises that a quote be used before the word to add some background context to its use.

He recently wrote a book, Aliened American, A Biography of William Howard Day: 1825 to 1865: Volume I & II.  He put a disclaimer in the beginning of the book stating that he didn’t want anyone to take offense to how he referenced African-Americans throughout the work.

Mealy believes that the younger generation has more of a problem with discussing the use of the n-word but also believes that it can be used as something to teach.

Author Todd Mealy put a useful disclaimer in the beginning of his new book. Photo courtesy Morgan Fletcher

“In a country like ours, it’s good to have that discussion,” he said.

The n-word is tossed around constantly between various people, not just African-Americans.  It has become a casual exchange in conversation as its historical meaning has become overlooked.

Eric Bear, a white student at Penn Manor, does not understand why African-Americans always claim that racism is sill alive yet they condone demeaning their own race by using racial slurs.

“Just because you’re black, (it) doesn’t give you the right to use the word.  It’s offensive no matter who says it, black or white,” Bear said.

He believes that the word should be discussed in class, however, as it is appropriate in context.

“It’s a part of history and a part of the literature.  It is what it is,” he said.  Bear remembers having to say “n dash word” when his class read Huck Finn aloud in class.

David Bradley, a University of Oregon professor  and author, disapproves of the sanitation of Huck Finn and believes that deleting the n-word from a classic novel deprives students of the “teachable moment” presented by the text.

Bradley is black.

He stated in a recent CBS 60 Minutes television segment that before he teaches the n-word, he makes each of his students say the word six or seven times aloud.

Bradley believes that when it comes to the issue of using the n-word in education, naysayers need to “get over it.”