When reading To Kill A Mockingbird aloud, is it wrong to read the word "nigger", even though we are not prejudiced?  

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amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is an important question, and one I think many people struggle with when teaching and reading this book.  One thing to consider is that during the time of books like this one and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn is that the language was not meant to be offensive.  It is just the language that was used on a daily basis.  Language evolves, and as we now consider the term offensive and degrading, it was just another word to the contemporaries of the time.  Consider this: the term "bling" is used for
"jewelry" today, and is not considered offensive.  However, what if in the future, the meaning of this word takes on another meaning altogether and is offensive?  Just as we can not imagine this, it would have been hard for the people of these novels to conceive that the "n" word would also be so volatile.

Once this discussion takes place in a classroom, perhaps then it will be easier to read the word aloud without much discomfort.  It will certainly open up the door to discussion of connotation, denotation, tone of voice and delivery, and the history involved in the novel itself.  What an amazing teachable moment!

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

From a different perspective, in Britian we are very careful to not mention words such as "Paki" which is a derogatory term used to describe immigrants from South Asia who have entered the country. Yet if you study a book like "Brick Road" or any number of books that have been written from the perspective of these immigrants you can hardly avoid these terms, PC or no PC. I agree with writers above that we cannot duck the issue here - it is vital for students to understand these words to understand the often painful and shameful experiences that immigrants have had to suffer and hopefully allows them to learn from other people's experiences and combat racism themselves in their future lives. So I would say it is absolutely vital that we do use these words, with all the obvious caveats that have been highlighted above. I would also like to point out, in Britain at least, that the word "nigger" has actually come back in as a term of respect in certain sub-groups.

marilynn07 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What a great discussion.

I agree with cburr about this word and other offensive words in our language. It is offensive, and a good teacher will use the vocabulary as a teachable moment.  A good teacher will also have the foresight to let the principal and parents know that you  are reading a work of fiction that has this vocabulary in it.

Harper Lee was writing in the common language of the day. I notice that Atticus Finch does not use this word. Nor does he allow his children to use this word.

I personally think it is wrong to call anyone names of any kind. When reading aloud in class, are you calling anyone a name?

As you grow older, you will have the opportunity to read many books that have offensive vocabulary in them.  You have a choice to focus on the story or on the one or two words that are offensive to your sensibilities.


dswain001 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Whenever I teach this novel, or any novel that may contain offensive language (like "Night") I always begin with a disclaimer letting the students know that this is simply a work of fiction and by no means was it chosen to hurt or offend anyone.  It is important to keep the feelings of others in mind. Some students may be uncomfortable saying or even hearing the word read aloud. So, whenever we do a group-read in class, the students have the choice of either skipping the word or replacing it with "n-word". It may seem silly to some, but I would rather not offend anyone. I suggest  you speak with your teacher if you feel uncomfortable saying the word and perhaps she can make similar allowances in your class.

jennifer-taubenheim eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with the previous answer that it was written to be true to the vernacular of the time. It is historically accurate. However, I understand the question. Even when it is part of the text, it can be tough to say because most of us are aware of how hurtful a word this word can be and how much damage the word and the intent behind it can do. It is harder for many people to say in front of others than it would be for them to curse in front of those same people. I think the decision of whether to read the word aloud or not depends on thr group dynamic and the understanding that you have together.

writergal06 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think it depends on the dynamics of the group reading it. If you are not being prejudice, and it is not considered offensive to anyone in the group, it shouldn't be a problem. Harper Lee did not use the word to be racist or prejudice, but rather as a part of the vernacular in the time and place about which she was writing. Kept within that context, it is not an offensive expression. However, if there is the possibility for it to be used in an offensive manner, or taken offensively by others, its best not to read it aloud.

cburr eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think this should be viewed as a teachable moment. It is far worse, in my opinion, to tiptoe around it and pretend it's not there than it is to have an open and searching discussion of the world in which this word was used and how it relates to the world today.  We need to teach kids about the shameful parts of our past at least as much as the glorious ones.

frizzyperm | Student

I remember as a kid we read Of Mice and Men in class and one day Simon Lee was reading. Simon was a Chinese lad. He read out a phrase something like, "George found a little chink in the boards and peeked through."...And we all fell about laughing, the whole class was in fits of laughter. There was no racism intended, it was just 13 year old boys humour. I clearly remember Simon laughed too. The incident passed without further comment.

But today everything has a hair-trigger and the slightest suspicion of scandal sets off huge chain reactions of hand-wringing and, often, pandering to self-pity. Today that same incident could create a massive hoo-haa of accusations and sanctimonious finger-wagging. It's a shame.

Of course we should teach books with unpleasant characters who use unpleasant language. If you remove all unpleasant language from fiction, how would you teach the Holocaust? Or describe the life of a plantation slave? Or teach about rape, domestic violence, or gang culture?

Mockingbird is evidently not a racist book. It's intentions and 'message' couldn't be more clear. When someone wants to censor an extremely widely approved book then the fault lies with the person, not the book. It is difficult, but it is not the book that is the issue, it is racism that is the issue.

A teacher's nervous avoidance of 'certain words' merely highlights the teacher's lack of moral authority and gives these words more illicit power.

zumba96 | Student

While we are not prejudice, this word is very controversial and I know that whenever this word would come up in a book everyone would skip over it. It doesnt matter that we arent prejudiced. It matters that we should not use a slur, I always felt uncomfortable when that word came up and I think people should refrain from reading it. 

carlzon | Student

I could never read that word aloud.  My experience with the word was of hurt and dehumanization of peers and people around me growing up and in family and friend circles.  Yes, of course I realize it is a historically "accepted" word but that doesn't mean it wasn't wrong and to compare it to..."bling" meaning jewelry as slang is just ignorant..the content is soo loaded and is so much more than slang.

I think the students can see the word with their eyes and for someone to say a teacher's "avoidance" of certain words highlights the teacher's lack of moral authority is absolutely sad and elitist to me....

No one can understand the experience and pain behind such words if one has not been inside the person's skin...therefore, I agree that it depends on the situation and those involved.

Some of the above notes are condescending and so far out of touch with the authenticity of the pain and degregation behind this oppressive time...and the years that followed it...teaching unpleasant characters and books is part of learning and growing and the way to understand new points of new, but to be bold enough to say one has no problem saying a word aloud that caused/causes such deep pain to many (not all) is insensitive, elitist and just plain ignorant.

samaffey | Student

I completely agree with amy-lepore, that this is an important subject when it comes to teaching literature.  In my 10th grade short fiction unit, we read "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor, which uses the "n-word".   I do believe that that when students are reading literature from a different time period in American history and literature, they need to understand that the culture and the mindset of the authors and the readers of the period are different from the mindset of readers today.  However, I do ask students if they are alright with hearing the word read aloud in class, anonymously of course.  If any one student has a problem or is uncomfortable, then I don’t read the word.  But I still believe they need to see it in print and understand the differences and changes that have occurred in American culture.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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