Hello from the end of a long, draining, but also exhilarating week. I've been teaching a lot: The Great Gatsby (takeaway: rich people have something resembling feelings too), The Just-So Stories (fascinating, and more complex than I remembered them, and Gil Scott-Heron's The Nigger Factory. Even typing the word makes me uncomfortable, and we started the class with a discussion of when and by whom the word can be used. My classes are ethnically diverse and people have a wide range of views about race, so a lively discussion always ensues. The first question was a bit of a zinger: do people sing along when the word is used in a hiphop song? Answer: no, and that includes the black students who generally believed that they could use the word because they'd reclaimed ownership of it: there was a sense that it was OK to experience the word used in art but not to employ it oneself unless it's clearly marked off with quotation marks, such as in the book's title, and even then people were reluctant in case repetition took away the sting. In case you're interested, I relied on a couple of journal articles to guide the conversation: Randall Kennedy's 'Who Can Say "Nigger"? And Other Considerations and Emily Bernard's 'Teaching the N-Word' – Kennedy is against fetishising the word by making it taboo, while stressing the multiple signifieds it represents, while Bernard's piece is a more reflective piece about the lived experience. The word's history and power is terrifying, and an Emory University professor was recently fired for using the word within quotation marks in conversation with a student: he was quoting what some racists had said about his support of African-American causes.
Gil Scott Heron's title announces his novel's purpose: he uses the word to denote African-Americans who conform to white American cultural standards and therefore maintain an oppressive system in exchange for material comforts: the Factory is the black university which produces
quasi white folks and semithinkers whose total response is trained rather than felt. Black students in the 1970s will not be satisfied with Bullshit Degrees or Nigger Educations.
The book is on my module because we wanted something which raised the big questions about the relationship between art and activism, and the ideological positions that range from 'art is separate' to 'art is nothing unless it is activist'. In these days of the apparently apolitical student, it does no harm to remind them that universities and especially students' unions used to be something more than a marketing department with some deportment training attached. The novel extends the examination of historically black colleges found in Ellison's Invisible Man and less directly, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time from the previous generation, and explores the rise and fall of student militance in the late 1960s, ending on a very ambiguous note. We took in Scott-Heron's music too, always a pleasure. We discussed the Frankfurt School's approach to popular culture, the Black Arts Movement appropriation of revolutionary energy (hence the presence of the Bill Hicks routine), hegemony, didacticism and the role of art in political education, which is how I ended up playing them snatches of The Lark Ascending and Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima as examples of art responding in very different ways to trauma.
You can tell from the text's presence on the module where I stand on this: I would never use the word independently or gratuitously, but I'm prepared – though not comfortable – to introduce it when used by those who've reclaimed it. We always start with an informed discussion of the word's history and establish a serious, thoughtful atmosphere, making sure that nobody has to say it and that its use isn't lighthearted. This is the second time I've taught this novel, and both times the students have more than risen to the occasion. It's been uncomfortable of course, especially for the BAME students whose emotional labour is obviously greater than that of the white students, but I think that they appreciate the intention and the atmosphere established. Also: it's a powerful book that justifies its use of the word.
So the teaching has been exhausting but also thrilling because it feels like we've been wrestling with the big questions about literature, form and content all week. I also played a minor role in a session on public speaking for the first-years, and observed a new colleague's teaching practice, learning a lot along the way. The older I get, the more I approve of vampirism. I've also spent the week reading an interesting PhD for examination at another university. I can't say anything about it for professional reasons, but doing this kind of thing does really make me feel like a part of a wider unseen community that does matter. There hasn't been much time for reading beyond the curriculum though and I was too exhausted for the deep stuff - I read the fourth Green Knowe novel, Stranger at… which was troubling and compelling (up there with Susan Cooper), a minor Pratchett (Mrs Bradshaw's Handbook) and I'm most of the way through Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger which is every bit as good as everyone says: a mixture of historical fiction and gothic melodrama which re-energises both those genres. I normally read her stuff the moment it comes out, so I don't know why I waited for so long with this one. Anyway, highly recommended.
After all that, I need some diversion, so tomorrow I'm off to see friends and colleagues acting in an am-dram country house mystery. It's not – officially - The Play That Goes Wrong, but I have hopes. And there's a raffle.