Why, in paragraph 11, does Baldwin use the term "nigger"?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

To a great extent, I think that Baldwin has to use the term to point out what children in the modern setting have to go against.  Baldwin's thesis is what do the children of color in the modern educational condition have to endure.  The reality is that they have to endure the social stigma of being called "a nigger."  If he used another word, it would be inauthentic because African- Americans of the time period in which Baldwin's writing were not called "people of color" or "hyphenated Americans."  Instead, they were called "niggers."  This is what the African- American children of the time period experienced.  For Baldwin, this is what teachers of those children must understand and must embrace in their pedagogy.  It is in the use of the term that Baldwin pivots into how teachers should teach and what they should teach as opposed to what they might actually do in their teaching:

In order for me to live, I decided very early that some mistake had been made somewhere.  I was not a “nigger” even though you called me one.  But if I was a “nigger” in your eyes, there was something about you – there was something you needed....So where we are now is that a whole country of people believe I’m a “nigger,” and I don’t , and the battle’s on!  Because if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either!  And that is the crisis.

It is this "crisis," highlighted by the use of the term "nigger," where children of color live in Baldwin's time period.  The reality of Brown vs. Board of Education integrated schools had not been fully realized.  It was a reality that African- American  students encountered and the use of the term brings this full force and weight of the crisis out into full view.  It is this use that motivates the transformational conclusion to Baldwin's work.  It is an ending that stirs the soul of the educator and demands a sense out of what can be in the modern schooling experience as opposed to what is, a world where the language of words that constrict are replaced by hopeful visions of human freedom:

I began by saying that one of the paradoxes of education was that precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.  It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.  And on the basis of the evidence – the moral and political evidence – one is compelled to say that this is a backward society.  Now if I were a teacher in this school, or any Negro school, and I was dealing with Negro children, who were in my care only a few hours of every day and would then return to their homes and to the streets, children who have an apprehension of their future which with every hour grows grimmer and darker, I would try to teach them -  I would try to make them know – that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.  I would try to make each child know that these things are the result of a criminal conspiracy to destroy him.  I would teach him that if he intends to get to be a man, he must at once decide that his is stronger than this conspiracy and they he must never make his peace with it.

It is here where Baldwin's use of the term "nigger" is in stark contrast to what can be, making the use of the term all the more powerful.

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hellogypsie's profile pic

hellogypsie | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

Posted on

Poor answer but bare with me :)

Baldwin uses the term 'nigger' in his book because it really caught people's attention. Had he used a less provocative term, he would have lost the respect as a serious author and the support he gained from the prejudiced white-Americans.

 

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