An Apology to My Students

I didn’t post yesterday for the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge © because I needed to sit with something and think about it. Then I needed to decide what to do. Actually, I knew what to do, but I also knew it would be difficult, and I needed to figure out how to say what I needed to say.

I have taught books by White writers that include the n-word in their books in the past, specifically To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both of which I mistakenly believed were antiracist. However, what both books have in common is that the Black characters serve as plot devices for White characters to learn about racism and injustice. Both of these books were in the curriculum I taught. I wasn’t made to teach either book and had the power to remove both of them and chose not to. I really regret those choices. I could have been teaching actual antiracist texts.

Another choice I regret is how I handled the language in both books. Some time back, my argument wouldn’t have been too much different from the argument cited here by Cait Hutsell, although, to be fair to my former self, I would have justified it by its inclusion in the text rather than some idea that I was “ban[ning] words from human discourse”:

Cait is right, of course. It was Cait’s tweet that prompted me to sit and think about my actions. Cait’s tweet was retweeted by several other people I follow who added their thoughts to the tweet, and they helped me figure out what I needed to do. Mary Worrell’s tweet in response to a thread by shea martin on failed allyship of another kind helped me figure out what I needed to do.

So, I am here to acknowledge publicly that I believe my actions in how I taught these novels were harmful. I explained to students that the word would appear in the novel. In my early years, I justified reading the word aloud because it was in the text. Later on, I confronted the word head-on at the beginning of our text study. We read the poem “Incident” by Countee Cullen and Gloria Naylor’s essay “The Meaning of a Word.” We also watched news clips about Huckleberry Finn‘s place in the curriculum. While this frontloading centered the voices of Black writers and their experience with the word, my next step was in the wrong direction. I asked the students how they wanted to handle the word when we read passages aloud. It’s wrong to put that on students, and it’s something I recognized because, in more recent years, I have simply said we are not going to say the word—I don’t care if it’s in the text.

I wish I could say I reached this understanding many years ago, but I didn’t, and my ignorance caused harm. Even if it’s true that I have not used that word outside of reading it in a text, I shouldn’t have even done that. I apologize to my former students. I’m sorry that my Black students experienced the racial trauma of hearing the word. I’m sorry that my White students took away from my lessons that using that word as long as it was in a text was okay.

I want to thank all the Twitter educators for making me reflect seriously on this harmful practice. You have my promise that I have changed my approach to texts entirely—actually to the point that I will no longer teach White writers who use that word in their writing (we can have arguments about realism all you want; you know why they used it).

I would urge my fellow White teachers to contemplate their practice on reading this word aloud, too. If you’re doing it, stop.


As a side note, on Thursday, this blog turned 15 years old, and I let the day pass by without remarking on it. Thanks to those of you who choose to read and engage.

4 thoughts on “An Apology to My Students”

  1. I’m loving your posts, Dana. Like many English teachers, I’ve taught TKAM many times; I teach in a very small rural community that is entirely white (and very conservative) — as someone who earned an Ivy League PhD focusing on race and culture in the U.S., I couldn’t have landed in a weirder, more challenging place. It’s taking me a long time to figure out how to teach what I care most about, and I’m not sure I’ll ever really solve this one. Like you, I’ve done frontloading to address the n-word and its history. Unlike you, though, I don’t think the book necessarily isn’t anti-racist. Pedagogy and context can go a long way to reframe any text. For example, reading The Clansman and watching Birth of a Nation can — if framed properly — generate substantial anti-racist narratives among students who might find Franz Fanon, for example, difficult or alienating (I’ve experienced this). I think if TKAM is adequately historicized and paired with quality texts by African American writers (I use Baldwin a LOT), and the n-word is framed the way I believe Harper Lee intended it to be framed (I’m guessing you’ll disagree with me on this) — as a brutal critique of a racist cultural norm — then it does have the power to subvert the dominant racist discourse out of which it comes. But that depends on how it’s taught and how students’ reading is guided. All of this, though, is not to say I wouldn’t prefer to find a different book to get at this most crucial aspect of American history and experience. I so badly want to be able to teach Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (for 9th/10th grade; I teach 9-12), for example, but can’t get past the explicit sexual description in it (I haven’t been able to imagine my students being able to handle it, nor their parents; am I worrying too much?). So for now, because I can use TKAM to get at all kinds of important things — Scottsboro, Emmett Till, Tulsa, Ferguson, Floyd, Breonna, Sandra Bland, Kaepernick’s knee, Adichie’s wonderful work on narrative, etc. — I think I’m going to do it once more while I save my money to buy a class set of another text once I find it (we have zero $ for anything). Anyway, sorry to go on so long. I really appreciate your work and look forward to your posts. Thank you.

    1. Hi Bob. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. As you suspected, I do disagree that the texts are antiracist, but I agree you absolutely must contextualize and “disrupt” them when teaching them. The reason I can’t agree about them being antiracist is that the White experience in learning about racism is centered. The Black characters are still not fully realized people. At best, perhaps the authors are well-meaning. For what it’s worth, I taught The Bluest Eye to ninth graders in Atlanta (a private Jewish school, if that makes a difference). I currently teach Song of Solomon. I am frustrated and angry on your behalf that you are spending your money for class sets of the books your students need. Thanks for the kind comment.

  2. Well said and honestly sincere. I have made mistakes in teaching and coaching, but beating ourselves up serves no purpose. Reflect as you have and move forward with greater clarity and purpose. Good for you. Best.

    1. Thanks, Chuck. I don’t think I’m beating myself up so much as making myself accountable. As Maya Angelou says, “do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

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