Conversation before Controversy: The N-word on Stage

Censorship, General Interest

By: Kate Lechtenberg

kaleidescope mirror eyes
Image credit: Bronia Sawyer

Whenever a controversy about the N-word in a work of art makes the news — as it has recently with Cherry Hill High School East’s recent debate about whether to allow the production of Ragtime: The Musical to proceed as written — I find myself debating with pieces of my own identity. How would I respond if this controversy entered my community?

As a white citizen of the United States, I know that my understanding of that word’s destructive power will always be second-hand.

As a white mother of Senegalese-American kids with beautiful brown skin — kids who don’t yet know what the N-word is — I fear the day they first hear the word directed toward them.

As a white former English teacher, I replay past conversations with students about the word in To Kill a Mockingbird and discussions with colleagues about how to handle the word when reading aloud from the book… and I wonder if I made the right decision.

As a musical theater lover and former high school actor, I know how invested students become in their art, how much learning about history and humanity happens while taking on a role in history.

As a reader and theatrer-goer, I remember my emotions while reading E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, the book on which the musical is based, and while watching Ragtime: The Musical five times, working as an usher in college… and I remember the conversations I had with fellow readers and audience members about whether the white author or white theatrical production team had gotten the racial issues and tone “right” in their respective works.

And as a supporter of intellectual freedom, I recoil at any attempt to censor language in a work of art, both on copyright grounds and in support of art’s role in asking us to confront painful histories and contemporary parallels.

In short, my initial impulse is to take the cowardly stance of being glad it’s not me who has to decide whether or how to speak up.

Which comes first: controversy or conversation?

But maybe conversations about the N-word are not about an absolute right or wrong. Maybe it doesn’t have to be intellectual freedom versus racial sensitivity, copyright versus sensitive revision. Maybe it should be about having these conversations sooner, more often, and with more listening.

In 2007, the NAACP symbolically buried the N-word in a Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery, but the word still lives on in music, entertainment, and books that continued to be challenged, as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been challenged in Accomack County Public Schools. The word has not died. So maybe I need to listen to the many stances being passionately taken, and work to make sure these voices are heard before controversy strikes.

In 2015, St. Louis Park High School student Amira Warren-Yearby wrote about conflict that erupted over the N-word in Ragtime two days before her Minnesota school’s production. Warren-Yearby’s school administrators decided to replace the N-word with the word “boy,” despite student petitions and meetings with the principal that argued for keeping the script intact. Warren-Yearby’s words have moved me more than any others I’ve read about this controversy. She describes her experience as an actor in the musical:

In the opening number, the word “Negro” is used. Everyone around me seemed rattled. Some even stopped once we reached the word. I felt my blood pressure begin to rise as I wondered why it had to be said. Everytime [sic] the word came up in the show I wouldn’t say it. Many try to distinguish “Negro” and the other version of the N-word, and although I can politically write “Negro” because it was a category used to describe black people, it still felt wrong.

The more I sang the songs, heard the words, the more I knew how important each aspect included was crucial to the plot. The more I knew how it related to the events in Ferguson and what is happening all over the world. Those words resonated with me, and I began to believe them for what they are, the truth. I realized we aren’t as far from the prejudice of the past as we think.

I respect Warren-Yearby’s rising blood pressure, her slow, thoughtful deliberation on the topic. She shows an engagement with this question and the full range of physical, emotional, artistic, historical, and personal effects she experienced. Then she makes her decision — to support the production of the play as written — and speaks her truth. What would have happened if Warren-Yearby, her fellow cast members, and her director had started this public conversation well before the production? Would it have led to a different result?

Make time for listening

Though Warren-Yearby’s Minnesota school acted quickly to amend the script, Cherry Hill High School East in New Jersey began debating the issue two months before the production. The administration announced on Friday that it had decided to comply with copyright law, present the musical as written, and include curriculum and conversation about race for the school and community.

They do so in a community divided, as reports equally moving dissenters from the Camden County East Branch of the NAACP, like Carey Savage, a retired school administrator who is the organization’s vice president. Savage argued, “You can’t call me the N-word and then tell me it’s art. I don’t care what your rationale is. I’ve been through too much for that.”

I cannot argue with Savage’s experience. But I applaud an important decision by the Cherry Hill administrators to turn controversy into conversation by engaging in dialogue about historical and contemporary racial discrimination. The local CBS affiliate quotes Cherry Hill’s Superintendent Joseph Meloche as saying, “It’s become abundantly clear to us that this discussion has to take place, and if we can do it within the school and provide an opportunity for our kids and a safe and secure environment to learn and have that discussion, then it is our responsibility to do that.”

Yes. This conversation has to take place, and not just because copyright law won’t let us change the script. Conversations about the destructive power of racial slurs needs to happen routinely, proactively, and with appreciation for all perspectives. Maybe if, in some future near or far, we can build a culture of proactive discussion and action that faces and works against past and present racial injustice, maybe we will see more communities like Cherry Hill, where books and theater continue rather than start these conversations.


Kate LechtenbergKate Lechtenberg is in her first year of doctoral studies in Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Iowa. After teaching high school English for 10 years and working as a school librarian for four years, her research focuses on how affect, emotion, and morality intersect with the structural constraints of educational policies and standards. Lechtenberg teaches a young adult literature course for preservice teachers and English majors and a course on collection development for preservice teacher librarians in the School of Library and Information Science, and she is currently serving on the AASL Standards and Guidelines Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.