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Using the ‘N’ Word: Teaching with Racist Primary Sources. Dr Lydia Plath Lecturer in African American History Canterbury Christ Church University. "It warn't the grounding -- that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head." "Good gracious! anybody hurt?"

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using the n word teaching with racist primary sources

Using the ‘N’ Word: Teaching with Racist Primary Sources

Dr Lydia Plath

Lecturer in African American History

Canterbury Christ Church University


"It warn't the grounding -- that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head."

"Good gracious! anybody hurt?"

"No'm. Killed a nigger."

"Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn


“Freedom is all right, but de niggers was better off befo' surrender . . . If he was sick, Marse an' Mistis looked after him, an' if he needed store medicine, it was bought an' give to him; he didn' have to pay nothin'. Deydidn' even have to think 'bout clothes nor nothin' like dat, dey was wove an' made an' give to dem. Maybe everybody's Marse and Mistiswuzn' good as Marse George and Mis' Betsy, but dey was de same as a mammy an' pappy to us niggers."

Tempe Herndon Durham, North Carolina

WPA Interview


They went 'round whippin' niggahs. They get young girls and strip 'emsta'k naked, and put 'em across barrels, and whip 'em till the blood run out of 'em, and then they would put salt in the raw pahts. And ah seen it, and it was as bloody aroun' em as if they'd stuck hogs. "I sho' is glad I ain't no slave no moah.

Richard Toler, Ohio

WPA Interview


Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. . . . Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, . . . "If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master--to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. . . . I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. . . . From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. 

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)


To understand this, you have to go back to what the young brother here referred to as the house Negro and the field Negro back during slavery. There were two kinds of slaves, the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negroes . . . they lived near the master; and they loved the master more than the master loved himself. . . . Whenever the master said "we," he said "we." That's how you can tell a house Negro.. . . He identified himself more with his master, than his master identified with himself. . . . In those days he was called a "house nigger." And that's what we call them today, because we've still got some house niggers running around here.

Malcolm X, ‘Message to the Grass Roots’ (1963)


. . . when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. 

Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)


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.

Countee Cullen, ‘Incident’ (1925)


“Rejoice you cry baby Niggers it’s affirmative action month. A town hall meeting will not save you the wetbacks or the chinks. Your failures are hereditary and can’t be corrected by these liberals…When I see you in class it bugs the hell out of me because your taking the seat of someone qualified. You belong at Coolie High Law don’t you forget!”

Flyer distributed at University of California, Berkeley, 1994

language and terminology
Language and Terminology
  • The terminology used to describe African Americans in the United States has changed over the past century.
  • Some words are outdated (and/or offensive) and therefore it is not appropriate to use them in either oral or written discussion.
  • You will be reading some dated material, so words previously deemed acceptable (e.g. “Negro”) may be widely used in your reading. This does not mean that it is acceptable for you to use them.
  • Never use offensive terms like “n****r” or “c**n”.
  • “Negro” / “negro” / “colored” / “Afro-American” are outdated, and it is no longer appropriate to use them.
  • Accepted current usage is “African American” (capitalised, but not hyphenated) or “black” (not capitalised). You can generally use these words interchangeably, but note the political context of “Black Power.” To capitalise “Black” is to make a political statement. Similarly, “white” is not capitalised.
  • NB if you are quoting a source, you should always keep the original terminology. E.g. ‘Malcolm X argued that African Americans were divided between what he called “house negroes” and “field negroes.”’
  • NB This is a complicated issue and not all African Americans agree on the best terminology to use. It is highly likely to change again in the future.
  • If you are not sure, please ask.