N-word 101: College class studies story behind the slur

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Neal Lester has never been called a ni**er. But his Italian wife was once called a “ni**er-lover.”

“We were just friends at the time, but people assume when they see a black man and a white woman that there must be some type of intimacy,” Lester told theGrio. “There’s a lot of history there.”

It’s those type of experiences and misunderstandings that helped inspire Lester, dean of humanities and former chair of the English Department at Arizona State University, to create a course called “The N-word, an Anatomy Lesson.”

Every fall, students can learn about the n-word, in all its complexities and connotations.

Click here to view a Grio slideshow: The top 10 n-word controversies of the decade

Lester designed the single-credit, first-year course for students to explore the n-word in a cultural context. Course materials include popular music tracks, magazines, newspaper clippings, television commercials, political campaigns, children’s’ play toys and other elements of pop and mainstream culture.

A literary scholar, Lester first made the class available in 2008 and again in 2010. It is open to all students.

While there have been recent attempts to get rid of the n-word, including a symbolic public burial four years ago by the NAACP with then-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Lester says that words cannot be buried. There have even been efforts to remove the n-word from the dictionary.

“People don’t even learn about the n-word from a dictionary,” Lester said.

Not surprisingly, the class is popular among students. Eighteen year old sophomore, Kaari Aubrey, said she enrolled in it because the title stirred her curiosity. Before the class, the n-word was a casual part of her vocabulary.

“I used it here and there when I would joke around with my friends or if I were describing a person who was misrepresenting the race,” she says with a laugh.

Now, she says she is more critical of the word and has a greater understanding of its cultural connotations.

“Even though it was just a one-credit course seminar, I got more out of it than I did of any other class in my first year,” she said.

It’s this sort of revelation about the meaning of the word that middle school principal Brett Smith hopes for his students to experience.

That’s why he created a class called “The History of Rock and Roll” for eighth graders at Timberview Middle School in Colorado Spring, Colo. The n-word frequently comes up in the class due to its usage in American music.

“We look at rock and roll in its early stages and the whole James Dean era,” Smith told theGrio. “And then the word really got popular with rap music.”

Smith, a white American male, said he was always curious with what appeared to be a double standard with the usage of the word. He said he “experimented” with it once in high school when he turned back in his seat toward two African-American classmates and said, “What’s happening n-word?”

“You could hear a pin drop,” he stated. “But they had always used the word consistently with each other and I just wanted to see if I could use it.”

Smith teaches the class and says that he has seen a difference in students’ understanding of the word since it was first offered in 2010. Reading about Lester’s course in an article, Smith reached out to the college professor to commend his work.

He plans to integrate some of Lester’s curriculum for the middle school class.

For now, the n-word may not be going anywhere any time soon. People will probably continue to use it, but some like Lester hope that by bringing the n-word into the classroom, people will be more encouraged to confront how race is addressed in America.