WATERBURY, Connecticut (AP) — No way, Larry Ward thought to himself, emotions boiling. There is no way that my grandson should have anything to do with that word.
For Ward, born 65 years ago in this small Connecticut city, the epithet conjured memories best left buried: racism inflicted on his grandfather down South, humiliations his mother endured before migrating to Waterbury, violence from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Birmingham, Alabama, to Boston, Massachusetts.
“There’s too much history behind the word. Lynching, killing,” Ward said.
Then he learned that his grandson, 13-year-old Latrell Powell, was appearing in a Waterbury Arts Magnet School play that repeatedly used the hated word. And Ward informed Latrell that he was going down to the Board of Education meeting to let authorities know just how strongly he felt.
Ward was far from alone. The district superintendent wanted to cancel the play. Latrell’s parents had major objections. The school board meeting was full of people who wanted the word to disappear.
But “ni**er” is no ordinary word.
It is the essence of black pain, yet many African-Americans use it with pride, like a hard-won privilege. The word is undeniably racist and there have been widespread efforts to eliminate it from the black vernacular, yet it refuses to die.
And so it was that one month after the school board meeting, Ward sat enthralled in a downtown theater as Latrell and 10 other students performed “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” by the revered African-American playwright August Wilson.
Waterbury was not the only place struggling with the word. As the city debated last February, a much-criticized new edition of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was arriving in stores nationwide with all 219 instances of the word changed to “slave.” A white high school basketball coach in Ohio was suspended after players said he used the word with the team. A former Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, TV reporter was suing the station that let him go for using the word in a news meeting.
It seems the United States is in a new N-word era, a no-man’s land where the rules are unclear. When lines are blurred, people get hurt. Yet if there’s one group unscathed by the word, it’s young African-Americans, blissfully immune from this particular history.
In Waterbury, these young people seized the power of the word.
In Latin, a root of the English language, the color black is “niger.” In 1619, when the Jamestown settler John Rolfe recorded the arrival of the first boatload of African captives in America, he described them as “negars.”
Over time, the word developed into an instrument of white supremacy. Yet black people have long used it, too, and not necessarily in the way some blacks now use it as a synonym for “dude.”
Set in 1911 in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, boardinghouse for blacks, “Joe Turner” is a searing exploration of the time when children of former slaves fled the countryside for big cities, searching for what Wilson describes as “a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.”
Black characters in the play use the word to describe other blacks who are still trapped in a slave-like mentality or condition. “These niggers coming up here with that old backward country style of living,” boardinghouse owner Seth Holley says a few minutes into the play. “It’s hard enough now without all that ignorant kind of acting.”
Eighteen-year-old Toure Richardson, who played the role of Seth Holly, is not the type to casually use the word in real life, even though he hears other young people, even elementary-school kids, say it all the time.
Speaking the epithet in the play felt “risky,” Richardson said. He worried that older people in the audience might be wounded.“The word has more power over the older generation than younger people,” he said. “Young people use it as slang or to say hello, and you can tell they’re not hurt by it, because they keep using the word. But if you say it to someone in their 50s or older, it’s like wow, did you just use that word? Do you even know what you’re saying?”
“People died for that word,” said Latrell Powell, who played the neighborhood boy Reuben Scott. “It really means a lot.”
“It will always have some sort of power,” he said. “The N-word can be replaced, but people will always use it because it has a stronger and higher meaning.”
That power is real for Dr. David Snead, Waterbury’s school superintendent. Growing up black in a white Detroit neighborhood in the 1960s, he literally fought people who described him with the epithet. As he marched for civil rights as a college student in Alabama, white racists spat the word at him.
“It reminds me of too much pain, agony,” Snead said. So when Snead heard about plans for the play, he decided almost by instinct to cancel it.
Ward agreed. “I don’t have a hatred bone in my body. I respect all people,” he said. “But I’m very emotional about what my grandfather had to go through, what my mother had to go through. They had to humble themselves, never look white people in the eye, say yes sir and no sir, because if they didn’t they could get killed.”
“That affected me,” Ward said.
Yet the student actors were convinced Superintendent Snead had made a mistake. They already were deep into rehearsals, living century-old lives, exploring their terrible yet fiercely hopeful reality.
Supported by their director and principal, both of them white, the students set out to convince the adults that “Joe Turner” could actually defuse the power of the word. Snead agreed to reconsider, and a school board meeting was called to let everyone state their case.
Latrell did not go with his grandfather. “There was too much emotion in the air,” he said. “My grandfather was very serious. I didn’t want to anger him. I understood his point very clearly.”
At the meeting, many people were concerned with rampant use of the word in casual conversation. Ward, for example, remembered hearing a young Hispanic co-worker repeatedly use it a few years back.
“This anger came up,” Ward said. “You don’t know how much I wanted to punch him in his mouth.”
Richardson’s heart was pounding in his chest as he spoke to the crowd. “This play has a message of freedom, of upliftment, of understanding other points of view,” he said.
“That word doesn’t have power unless you give it that power,” the young man told his elders. “If you hear it and automatically flash back or have a moment in your heart, guess what? You just gave it that power. It can have little power if you let it, or great power if you let it. It’s all on you.”
Timothy Floyd, who played Bynum Walker, recalled feeling unsettled, “because both sides were trying to do the same thing. We’re trying to educate our black youth as well. This play is just another means of doing that.”
“Young people today don’t know the root of the word,” said Floyd, 18. “They only know, ‘My brother uses it with his friends … it came from (the rapper) Tupac.’”
In the end, the passion and commitment of the actors won over the adults. They decided to let the play go forward, provided there was a discussion with the audience about the word after each performance.
“We’re never too far from hurt,” Snead said later. “Hurt is real to us; it shapes the present.”
Before the play became an issue, Snead never wanted to hear the word again. Now he has decided that it’s acceptable in certain artistic or historical situations.
“This was what you call a teaching moment,” he said. “You don’t have very many like that, especially for a whole community.”
The final curtain fell on “Joe Turner” after the tormented traveler Herald Loomis cathartically freed himself from memories of “niggers swimming in a sea of cotton.” On this February night, the audience of several hundred people rose in a lengthy standing ovation.
Ward’s emotions were bubbling again, this time with pride and joy. “The play was phenomenal,” he said. “Listening to my grandson, to the way these kids presented themselves at the meeting, I had a change of heart.”
He cringed only at one point, when a white character, a traveling peddler, discussed his skill at finding missing “Nigras.”
“I used to hear Caucasian people use that same dialect,” Ward said.
The white actor who played the peddler, 18-year-old Jonathan Creem, thought the controversy over the word showed that “maybe we are not that ready for change.”
But it was still one of the greatest experiences of his life.
“Maybe,” the teenager said, “we can use words to try and make a difference.”
Richardson, too, was profoundly affected by the performance. His character spoke the word more than any other actor that night.
“I felt as though I was using it for the right reasons,” he said. “I felt right about using it in its historical context.”
He also felt that black people should let go of their pain.
“Yes, we should,” he said. “If you hold onto it, it can lead to bitterness, bitterness turns to sickness, sickness turns to disease. It’s not a good thing. If you don’t realize how much we’ve grown as a nation of all races to where we are now, you’re missing out. You’re holding on to what was, and you’re not moving forward, and that’s not healthy for anybody.
“Yes we went through it, but here’s the positive outcome of what came before. History is history. You don’t want to forget it, but you want to let go of the pain and move forward.”
Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at jwashington(at)ap.org or http://www.twitter.com/jessewashington .
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.