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VCU Speaker Leads Discussion On Using the N-Word

Author and professor Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor
Author And Professor Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor. (Photo courtesy of VCU)

*VPM News intern Malcolm Key reported this story.

Author and professor Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor recently spoke about the history of the N-word at VCU’s Virginia's Past, Present, and Future speaker series that coincides with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia. Pryor, a Smith College professor and daughter of the late comedian Richard Pryor, outlined how the word is used in modern-day classrooms and why the word needs to be discussed.

Pryor’s presentation dug into how the n-word has been used by black activists as well as professors in college classrooms, and why it’s so difficult to talk about.

“I think it’s difficult because people don’t wanna reveal their racism, or their racial naivete, or their awkwardness around this subject,” said Pryor. “People don’t want to reveal who they really are. And that’s kind of what the n-word forces us to do.”

During her talk, Pryor, who’s bi-racial, didn’t say the actual slur, nor did she allow anybody in the audience to use it. Her choice comes after a previous incident in her classroom where one of her white students used the n-word out of context, quoting a scene from the 1970’s comedy “Blazing Saddles,” which was co-written by her father. According to Pryor, the incident left some of her students upset. The professor has since eliminated all uses of the actual word from future discussions, saying it takes away from its importance.

“I think I do that because I’m in recognition of the fact that the word actually does real and present harm when it enters the space,” said Pryor. “...I kinda want to be able to pull up my shirt sleeves and dig in and really have a deep conversation about it without actually dealing with the harm that it’s causing in real time.”

Pryor’s discussion of the n-word prompted her to examine its use in literary works, such as Huckleberry Finn, that have become staples within high school and college classrooms. She used two controversial incidents as examples where white teachers (at Princeton and Smith College, respectively) have said the word while teaching students. The Princeton professor had to cancel his class after some students walked out following its use.

Pryor says compared to the amount of times teachers have said the n-word in their classrooms, student pushback is slim. She also says the situation is a result of educators being ignorant of the word’s existence in modern day America.

“The professors are not taking seriously that in addition to the word being in the pages of old books, that the word is also in the present,” said Pryor.

After episodes such as this, Pryor said this is less of a situation on the freedom of speech, but more of “an issue of pedagogy.” She thinks there should be less time taken on whether teachers should or shouldn’t say the n-word, and more time focused on the word itself.

“I don’t want to tell anybody whether or not they can or can’t say the n-word. What I want is for people to talk about it,” said Pryor. “To be able to talk about the fact that actually something is happening when the word is used…and if we want the conversation to move forward, we have to acknowledge that something is really happening at those points of encounter when the n-word enters the space. And until we do, we’re really not going to be able to move forward.”

Pryor says she’s had moments in her past where she was confronted by the use of the n-word, and had no one to talk to about it. She uses her workshops to give students, teachers and others the opportunity to discuss the use of the n-word and how it affects people as a whole. Pryor says others who have been in her situation shouldn’t feel alone.

“I want people to know their stories matter, that the stories told together tell a larger story about race and racism in our country…and that when we keep telling them and keep putting them at the forefront, we can not only change our vocabulary around a single word, but around greater issues of inequity and injustice in the U.S.,” said Pryor.

Pryor also shares her personal story and experiences teaching about the slur in her new book, tentatively titled, “Talking About the N Word.” It’s scheduled for release next year.

*This story has been updated to clarify that Pryor spoke at VCU's Virginia's Past, Present, and Future speaker series.

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