In early February, students at Princeton University protested when a professor used the N-word in a class about hate speech. He ended up canceling the course. It’s hardly the first time this epithet has sparked a debate over racial sensitivity and freedom of speech, including last semester at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
One Smith historian, who has a personal connection to the N-word, wants to help teachers address it better.
“There's all kinds of other words that mean ‘black’ and that maybe aren't even nice words, like ‘pickaninny.’ But I can say that right now,” said history professor Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor. “But I'm not going to repeat the N-word. So what …is rooted in the specific history of this specific word, and the racial violence around this specific word, that makes it so powerful?”
Pryor has been thinking about the N-word for a long time. And she’s in a unique position to do so. Not only is she a Smith College historian of race in America. She’s also the child of a white Jewish mother and a black father, who happened to be Richard Pryor.
The iconic comedian, who rose to fame in the 1970s, was one of the first performers to pepper the N-word throughout his routines.
(To hear edited clips of Richard Pryor's stand-up, click on the play button above to listen to the audio version of this story. Or listen at this link to unedited examples of Pryor's comedy. Note: the language may be offensive. )
“My father really made public the fact that African-Americans used the N-word with each other,” Elizabeth Pryor said. “He used the N-word in a way that was subversive and defiant.“
Elizabeth Pryor was about seven years old when her father’s Grammy-winning comedy album, “That (N-word)’s Crazy,” came out. It was decades later, as a new professor at Smith, that she unexpectedly had to make her own decision on using the word publicly.
A student in her Civil War history class quoted a joke from a movie (that happened to be co-written by Richard Pryor).
“They repeated a line from Blazing Saddles that uses both a disparaging word for people of Chinese descent and the N-word,” Elizabeth Pryor said. “And I was looking around at this classroom of mine, which was mostly white students, but [also] some African-American students, and myself, who's African-American, and I was like ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa.’”
At the next lecture, she told the class the N-word was off-limits, “and nobody ever said it again. But it was a missed opportunity,” Pryor said. “There was great sophisticated, intellectual work we could have been doing in the class and we weren't doing it because I had censored the word.”
That was the last time she taught a course about racism without addressing the N-word head on.
Now Pryor tells her students on the first day of class they will read texts that include the slur, they will see it on Power Points, but they will not discuss the word... until halfway through the course. That's when she teaches the N-word's historical journey -- from a label for slave to a demeaning epithet -- and she lets students talk about their interactions with the word.
“It really does take several weeks of the students doing group work together, having some difficult conversations about other topics, before you can even get them to have this conversation with each other,” she said.
Although she’s been teaching and writing about the N-word for almost a decade, Pryor still gets nervous every semester before the first N-word lecture. So do her students.
“Students are terrified,” she said. “Black students are terrified that I'm not going to take care of them, that I am going to allow white students to say whatever they need to, for their intellectual process. The white students are terrified that they're going to put their foot in their mouths in ways that they can't even predict because racism is so subtle and so deep. They’re afraid that they are going to inadvertently reveal a dark thought.”
They push through, but Pryor said it's only gotten harder for students to talk openly on the subject since President Trump was elected and racial tensions have risen.
And if it's this awkward in a class with a black historian who specializes in the N-word, it's no less confusing elsewhere on college campuses.
Last fall, a white professor at Smith was removed from teaching an English class after reciting the N-word in a poem and then suggesting students who were upset leave the class; he later apologized in the student newspaper.
The teacher did not respond to my emails, and the English department chair declined an interview.
Another Smith professor, Kevin Quashie, who is black, wonders if the college could have matched the professor up with another instructor.
“What gets lost when things happen -- like the incident at Smith or Princeton, or there was one at UConn -- we miss the chance to try to pay attention to the specifics of the dynamics,” Quashie said, “and for administrators to be thoughtful and not panic, and to say, ‘how do we fix this for learning?’
Quashie, a professor of Africana, said the N-word is virtually impossible to avoid in the classes he teaches: black culture, literature, and music, including modern rap lyrics.
But he will never ask a student to say the actual N-word aloud. So if there's a book or song passage he wants the class to focus on, “if it has that word in it, I’ll read that passage, and then I’ll decide in the moment whether I'm going to say that word,” he said. “And I have to admit, in the last four or five years, as we've been in this climate of intensity, I don't say that word. I defer and use the euphemism.”
Elizabeth Pryor said one thing that could help diffuse this tension is teaching about the word at a younger age. After all, most American teenagers have had to read Huck Finn, which uses the N-word 219 times.
“I kind of expected my students … by college to have already had these conversations, and they haven't,” she said. “I mean, they know it's a bad word, they know it's hurtful. But they don't understand the gravity. They don't understand the long history.”
This spring, Pryor will be giving workshops to middle and high school teachers on ways to broach the N-word in class without making students feel unsafe or excluded.
She’s also writing a book about the epithet, partly from her perspective as Richard Pryor’s daughter.
She said there are so many things she wishes she could ask her father, who died in 2005, such as:
“Was it always a given that you would say the N-word on stage? Did you think about what it would mean having white audiences who heard you describing the way black people spoke to each other? Was that frightening?”
Richard Pryor famously changed his views on the N-word after a trip to Kenya, when he came to see the slur as more demeaning than comedic.
After he spoke about that epiphany on his album, “Live at the Sunset Strip,” he took his daughter Elizabeth aside, “and told me he was never going to use the N-word again.”
To her knowledge, he never did.