High school play seizes power from the N-word

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WATERBURY, CONN. (AP) - No way, Larry Ward thought to himself, emotions boiling. There’s no way my grandson should have anything to do with that word.

For Ward, born 65 years ago in this small Connecticut city, the epithet conjured memories best left buried: racism inflicted on his grandfather down South, humiliations his mother endured before migrating to Waterbury, violence from Little Rock to Birmingham to Boston.

“There’s too much history behind the word. Lynching, killing,” Ward said.

Then he learned that his grandson, 13-year-old Latrell Powell, was appearing in a Waterbury Arts Magnet School play that repeatedly used the hated word. And Ward informed Latrell that he was going down to the Board of Education meeting to let authorities know just how strongly he felt.

Ward was far from alone. The district superintendent wanted to cancel the play. Latrell’s parents had major objections. The school board meeting was full of people who wanted the word to disappear.

But “nigger” is no ordinary word.

It is the essence of black pain, yet many African-Americans use it with pride, like a hard-won privilege. The word is undeniably racist and there have been widespread efforts to eliminate it from the black vernacular, yet it refuses to die.

And so it was that one month after the school board meeting, Ward sat enthralled in a downtown theater as Latrell and 10 other students performed “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” by the revered African-American playwright August Wilson.

Waterbury was not the only place struggling with the word. As the city debated last February, a much-criticized new edition of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was arriving in stores nationwide with all 219 instances of the word changed to “slave.” A white high school basketball coach in Ohio was suspended after players said he used the word with the team. A former Philadelphia TV reporter was suing the station that let him go for using the word in a news meeting.

It seems we are in a new N-word era, a no-man’s land where the rules are unclear. When lines are blurred, people get hurt. Yet if there’s one group unscathed by the word, it’s young African-Americans, blissfully immune from this particular history.

In Waterbury, these young people seized the power of the word.

___

In Latin, a root of the English language, the color black is “niger.” In 1619, when the Jamestown settler John Rolfe recorded the arrival of the first boatload of African captives in America, he described them as “negars.”

Over time, the word developed into an instrument of white supremacy. Yet black people have long used it, too, and not necessarily in the way some blacks now use it as a synonym for “dude.”

Set in a black Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, “Joe Turner” is a searing exploration of the time when children of former slaves fled the countryside for big cities, searching for what Wilson describes as “a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.”

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