Shirley, You Can’t Be Serious

Jonathan Gourlay is white, and all of his students are black. What’s the one word he shouldn’t say?

Shirley wants me to say the n-word aloud, in front of a classroom of African-American students.

“Is this an elementary school class? Are you gonna treat us like children?” she asks.

Shirley is a confrontational former crack addict and grandmother. She is wearing revealing jean shorts and jangling hoop earrings that punctuate her movements with metallic seriousness. We are downtown, near the “bad” part of town, in the windowless white classroom of a ramshackle university that boasts a mix of old ivy-covered buildings with fancy turrets along with a rash of hopeful buildings from the early 1970s whose windows and walls are covered with ugly cement half-circles.

“I just wanna know if you’re gonna treat us like little kids,” Shirley asks.

She levels her dark eyes at me as she says this and crafts the word “kids” into a three-syllable threat. It’s amazing how southerners can coil their vowels like angry rattlers. In the Midwest we are embarrassed by a vowel that goes on too long. We wouldn’t want to take up too much of your time.

But, I explain, I can’t use that word and isn’t it interesting that I can’t use the n-word and shouldn’t we discuss this from a socio-linguistic point of view, how very interesting this word is that I am afraid to speak aloud in public. Meanwhile, you, being African American, can feel free to string it in to any old sentence the way my friends used to throw “fuckin’” into everything from “Pass the fuckin’ ketchup” to “Fuckin Nirvana, man. You know?” And I’m just an adjunct after all. Perhaps a tenured professor can stand before you and prance about singing the n-word and giggling. But an adjunct? I barely get paid.

“Aw shiiiiiit man, just say it,” says Marcus, a young man festooned in gold and dripping with thick dreadlocks.

(In the Midwest we keep our shit all trim and proper. Here it’s “shiiiiiiit.”)

It was probably my use of “African American” that really ticked off Marcus. In the south, things appear to be Black and White, and those “-American” hyphenates come across as snooty and out of touch. I had been getting somewhere, I thought, with my story about the T.I. concert I attended. How he was stoned out of his mind and forgot to pull up his pants (this gets a laugh). This story connects us, Marcus and me. I know who T.I. is, so I can’t be all bad, right? I didn’t tell them that I sat in the back corner of the concert hall on a folding chair the whole time. The scrum near the stage didn’t seem terribly inviting. Not at a concert where they confiscate the plastic bottle caps on your soda bottle so they can’t be used as weapons.

I was getting somewhere with this class until I stumbled unprepared into the n-word. Students shared their stories of murder, jail, misery, and drug-addiction. These stories usually had some tenuous connection to the subject at hand: the Harlem Renaissance. The feel of the class was something like an AA meeting in a dingy church basement or homeless shelter. Lots of horrific stories told in an upbeat manner by chain smokers.

“Sherlanda, why don’t you read this poem for us?” I ask in my most professorial tone.

Sherlanda looks at me. I’m kidding, right? I’m the one who started the poem and then stopped, once I spied the landmine in line eight.

“He thinks we all in middle school,” says Shirley.

I try to throw them off the topic with a story. When I first taught Harlem Renaissance literature, you see, I was in Micronesia (you’ve never heard of Micronesia, but never mind). The movie Rush Hour had just come out and all of my Micronesian students had taken to using “What’s up, my n-word?” as their morning greeting.

“Jackie Chan says it. Why not you?” laughs Stanley, the only other white guy in the room. He is an elderly man whose essays always turn in to screeds against “meat eaters” and are printed in a bold 18-point font.

Jackie Chan has no idea what he is saying, you see, just like my Micronesian students. There’s no context there, right? It’s the situational context that gives the actual meaning to the word. The word itself is neutral; it’s society that imbues the syllables with such power. This, of course, is very interesting…

I look at the twenty frustrated faces. They don’t want to hear me dance around the word. They don’t care about theories.
Did you know that “niggardly” is actually derived from the Old Norse? And there’s a Wikipedia page devoted just to instances of professors getting fired for using that word, which isn’t even related, etymologically speaking, to the word in question?

I’m losing the class. Their trust and their interest seem to hinge upon me saying this word aloud and in public — something I have pretty easily avoided doing my entire life. This poetry is alive, I think. It’s staring me down from the page. Daring me. Countee Cullen is the poet. He’s a southerner, from Lexington, Kentucky. Interesting, right?

More stares.

So here’s his poem:

Incident

Once riding in old Baltimore,

Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,

I saw a Baltimorean

Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,

And he was no whit bigger,

And so I smiled, but he poked out

His tongue and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore

From May until December

Of all the things that happened there

That’s all that I remember.

I begin to recite the poem, inching ever closer to the fateful n-word. The word is a hateful lighthouse that I generally steer clear of but that I now set a course for and intend ram right into. My career may break apart on the rocks of the word. I imagine being brought before the dean. Sent to sensitivity training. Labeled for life as the guy who had to go there, just had to start throwing around the n-word in class, couldn’t have stuck to the Romantics or something.

Yet, to avoid the word for fear would be disrespectful. Disrespectful to the poem, the students, and myself. So when I get to line eight, I say the word “nigger.” I say it awkwardly. I squeak it out like an apology.

I stop reading.

The poem calls for the full poison dart potential of the word. The boy in the poem didn’t awkwardly, apologetically, stammer out “nigger.” He poked the sharp point of the word straight into the poet’s guts.

So I repeat the stanza, only now I’m going to act out the poem, not recite it. I’m feeling the poem as it builds to that climactic “nigger” and then stands back and looks at the wreckage for one more stanza. And this time when I read the word it flings out of my mouth with as much hateful venom as I can muster. It sounds to my ears like someone shattering a pane of glass.

I don’t know how the students react because I can’t look at them. Yet I feel the hatred, the blood and turmoil that is coiled and tense within the word, a crouching ugliness that I shoot into the air on an arrow made of syllables and breath. It’s this ugliness that I have been avoiding and this ugliness that is crucial to understanding the poem, the class, myself. To avoid it is to let it grow and place an invisible hand across our mouths; make mute what must be spoken.

“Shiiiit,” says Marcus.

Everyone is smiling. The tension has dissipated. We understand each other now.

“I thought you was gonna treat us like kids,” says Shirley. And she laughs.

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.