Language and Controversy

Language and Controversy

Thomas Patrick Huston
Doctoral Student
Indiana University

Course: African American Literature

Intended Audience: Secondary/Undergraduate


1. Students will focus on relationships between humankind and language, between thought and word, between people and their use of language, between thought and artist, creator, and writer in a culture and his/her society.

2. Students will use and examine texts for various purposes (i.e. to control, to obliterate, to change, to limit, to build, to fantasize, to educate, to entertain, etc.), analyzing why, when, and how these various texts are effective and exploring reasons for their existence in our culture.

3. Students will design, complete, present, and evaluate independent projects and which relate to the course themes and readings and which involve both analytical and creative components.

4. Through individual and small group projects, writing tasks, and oral discussions, students will perceive and analyze relationships and patterns within and among literary selections and course themes and will compare/contrast through discussion and writings in terms of their motifs, conventions, themes, styles, points of view, cultural and historical elements and perspectives, and their portrayal of human ideas and ideals.

5. Students will develop awareness of and appreciation for aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual achievements outside their own areas of skills and interest.

6. Students will accept divergent views and respect each individual's uniqueness as they cooperatively and responsively interact with society.

7. Students will analyze sample genres of writing, examining the conventions of the genre, and experiment with various styles, techniques, purposes, audiences, and occasions in their own essays.

8. Students will discover and learn to use more than traditional print resources for their research. In addition, students will know the differences between the types of research and their value to specific communities and will learn to distinguish good quality sources from weaker ones—especially in relation to Internet materials.

Part One: Discussion

Watch the ten minute video "The N-Word Through History."

Instructors can ask students to answer the following questions before or after the video, or pause the video after each display of text and begin a conversation with students. Students could predict what they think each person will answer for each group of questions, and/or respond with their own answers.

Questions asked to random people in the documentary "A Grassroots Analysis of the N Word":

1. What is your reaction to the word?

2. When did you first hear the word?

3. Should the word be taken out of the dictionary?

4. What do people think is the definition of the word?

5. Should whites use the word?

6. Should blacks use the word?

7. Do you agree with comedian Chris Rock on his usage of the word? (Instructors might show Rock's famous stand-up comedy routine on his definition of the N word.)

8. Has usage of the word evolved? How?

9. Will the word ever disappear?

Part Two: Writing

In a class discussion or journal entries, express your own recollections about various stages of childhood and how the N word has affected you through the years: early years (pre-school and early elementary), later childhood, early teens, high school period, and your current stage. Identify the fears, desires, problems, and sources of comfort and guidance at each of these stages. Write a poem, essay, descriptive or explanatory paragraph, etc., which expresses your view about the stages in the process of growing.

One of the more interesting things about the N word is its origin and the ways (as the film demonstrates) in which people are confident as to what the word originally meant, or currently means. Why do you think people display confidence in things they might know nothing about? Does this type of uneducated confidence have a direct effect on the controversial nature of language? How?

After analyzing various trends in modern American society concerning the N word, write your own prophecy of the future of the N word. Discuss different potential future controversial uses of the word, how the word might evolve in film, politics, literature, comedy, art, and music, and if you think the word might disappear. For instance, several comedians have vowed to stop using the word. Will this have an impact on how most people use the word? Why or why not?

Independently, write a paragraph defining the N word using your own words. Include your thoughts concerning its significance to human existence (both individual and cultural), and discuss why. Read a list of definitions by online or published sources. Compare/contrast these definitions with your own.

Part Three: More questions for discussion, writing, or research project development:

1. If you were to make a ten minute video about the N word, what would you do differently than "A Grassroots Analysis of the N Word"? Discuss the manner in which you would structure the video and what content you would include (interviews, music videos, statistics, text), and explain your reasoning for each.

2. Discuss the quotation at the end of the video, "Language is a virus from outer space." What do you think the quotation means? Do you agree or disagree? Why?

3. What are some of your reactions to the images at the end of the video? How do they make you feel? Why? Are there other images that make you feel the same way? Where did you see these images? Explain.

4. The AASC biographies on comedians Gregory Dick and Richard Pryor mention how their use of the N word worked in their favor in helping to launch each artist's career. Can controversy be a good thing? Explain why or why not.

5. Watch the following video clips of two people of another race discussing the N word: Musician John Lennon; and Comedian Lenny Bruce (dramatized for the Dustin Hoffman film, Lenny) What is your reaction to these video clips? Do you agree or disagree with the information presented by these artists? Explain.

6. A popular 1970s American situation comedy was Sanford and Son, starring comedian Redd Foxx. It was the number two show in America for three years in a row and appeared on the CBS network for six seasons. Because the show was taped in front of a live audience before airing to the entire country, it gave producers time to edit the show to meet not only the time constraints of half hour situation comedies, but also the regulations set forth by commercial advertisers regarding content appropriateness.

Below are two unedited clips of the Sanford and Son television show containing the N word:

1. Sanford and Son Clip 1
2. Sanford and Son Clip 2

The word was edited out before it was aired to the public via the CBS station affiliates. Do you think the humor in each clip can stand alone without the use of the N word? Do you feel the inclusion of the word adds to the humor in each scene? Why or why not? Explain.

Do you feel the inclusion of the N word in each scene increases the quality of possible intended messages? What messages are made by usage of the word? What messages are lost? Could other words be substituted and still be effective as the N word in these scenes? What specifically is it about the N word that makes it effective or ineffective in the scenes below? Is it possible for language to be offensive and educational at the same time? Can you think of other examples in the English language or instances in popular culture where words have a similar effect?


Gil Scott-Heron, a pioneer in spoken word performance, wrote and performed music containing many intense social and political themes. Below are lyrics to the song, "The Get out of the Ghetto Blues." Do you think the words and/or song would be more powerful with the inclusion of the N word? Why or why not? When, if at all, is the N word important to music? Explain the reasons for your opinion.


Do you think the words and/or song would be more powerful with the inclusion of the N word? Why or why not? When, if at all, is the N word important to music? Explain the reasons for your opinion. Can social commentary be effective without controversial language? Do you feel the Scott-Heron song is as powerful as the Sanford and Son scenes? Are there similarities in the messages found within each? Explain. Do you think controversial language helps or hurts communication? Which, in your opinion, does controversial language do more? Help or hurt?

"The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues"

Lyrics to "The Get Out of the Ghetto Blue" I know you think you're cool
Lord if they bus your kids to school
I know you think you're cool
Just cause they bus your kids to school

But you ain't got a thing to lose
You just have to get out of the ghetto blues

I know you think you're cool if you're getting two welfare checks
You done told me you think you're cool
Because you're getting two welfare checks
Yeah but you got ten years to lose (if they catch you)
Just trying to fight that get out of the ghetto blues

What it is, what it is
He don't get you in the wash, Lord knows he'll catch you in the rinse

I know you think you're cool just cause you're shootin' that stuff in your arm
I seen you nodding
Cause you shoot that stuff in your arm
And it don't matter which pine box you choose
You got to get out of the ghetto blues
Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah