Montgomery Finds Racial Slur Offends, No Matter the Context

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

Montgomery County educators are replacing a lesson that called for students to read about and discuss a racial epithet against African Americans as a precursor to reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" in ninth-grade English classes.

The lesson, called "Questionable Words," focused on two reading selections, an essay and a poem, each dealing with the epithet and how the author was hurt by its use. Curriculum officials reexamined the lesson after an African American student told the school board in the fall that the class had upset her.

"What we heard from enough community members and some teachers is that it's sensitive, it's emotionally charged," said Betsy Brown, curriculum director for Montgomery schools. "And if we have a lesson that could be misused and cause real hurt to a few or to a whole classroom of kids, then maybe we need to change it."

The complaint from Maya Jean-Baptiste, a 15-year-old at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, marks a departure from the usual protest of racially insensitive language in classroom literature. Most often, someone seeks to ban a book; Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is a perennial target. In this case, the student objected to an introductory lesson whose purpose was to prepare her for the racist language in the book.

Maya said she walked into English class one day in the fall to find the desks arranged in a semicircle. The teacher passed out copies of an essay called "The Meaning of a Word," by the African American writer Gloria Naylor, which recounted the first time the author heard a young classmate use the "N-word." Maya's class was preparing to read Harper Lee's coming-of-age saga.

The teacher, who is white, read aloud from the essay and asked students to mark the word each time it appeared. She imitated stereotypical African American body language and elocution, Maya told board members, "moving her neck and pointing her finger."

"She has a different style of teaching things," Maya said, "and we knew she was a little over the top on some lessons. But this was not a lesson to be over the top about."

An official of the county NAACP accompanied Maya to a school board meeting in November and asked that the board "immediately abstain" from teaching the lesson.

School system officials would not say whether the teacher was reprimanded.

The Montgomery school system's decision comes at a time of heightened attention to racial insensitivity, largely after talk-show host Don Imus made racist and sexist comments about a college women's basketball team in a broadcast in the spring. On Monday in Detroit, NAACP leaders had a mock funeral for the "N-word" and other racial epithets, symbolically retiring them from use. Delegates to the group's annual convention marched through downtown with a ceremonial pine coffin and a bouquet of artificial black roses, according to the Associated Press.

Each year brings fresh attempts by parents and civic groups to challenge racially insensitive literature in the public schools. The most common target, education leaders say, is not Naylor's provocative essay, which isn't widely taught in high schools, or even Lee's novel, but rather "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Both books are standard fare in high school English classes. Twain's book, peppered with epithets, is considered more inflammatory.

National Cathedral School, an Episcopal institution for girls in the District, made national headlines 12 years ago when it pulled the Twain book from its shelves. The book was reintroduced in an elective, upper-grade course and is widely taught in the school today. More than a decade earlier, a black administrator at Fairfax County's Mark Twain Intermediate School led a nationally publicized effort to remove the book. It failed.

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