How to Workshop N-Words

By

At 8:30 a.m., our fiction workshop professor always has a stack of papers scattered restlessly around his 1993, all-black Air Max. In these classrooms, the instructor is always seated at the front of the room as if he is our choir conductor. And we, the students, are always in a semi-circle of rock hard chairs that hurt my back; they press against my spine four hours at a time. His happiness—his passion, I should say—for the opportunity to teach us how to make shit up in a better, more attentive fashion has yet to rub off on me. It’s more irritating than educational. I cannot pay close attention to anything this early in the morning. I can still feel the warmth of my pillow on my cheek.

For three years straight, I’ve sat in these exact settings. When I take the time to analyze my surroundings, it is like being in an insane asylum; I must have lost my mind. The walls are stripped bare, so white. Everything around me is so white, except the chairs, which are light grey.

The process of a story, essay, or poem being read aloud to your classmates while they pretend to listen to and then critique for ten to fifteen minutes at a time with words like flesh out and flow over and over until you forget what your story is about in the first place—is exhausting—is called “workshopping.” There’s a protocol to these environments I cannot disregard, nor refuse to participate in. I’m told this is an exercise used to discover what’s “working,” what’s “showing,” or what’s not “coming through clearly” in the stories we decide to tell.

This is true. It works most times. It makes us better writers, better editors. Teaches us how to pay attention to the acrobatics of the written word. Today, we begin class with one of my least-favorite workshopping techniques. Something similar to a guessing game, a sort of literary bingo, where our fiction workshop professor reads the first three to five pages of someone’s short story.

We watch him as he leans forward into the stack of dispersed papers, pushing a piece of his long black hair behind his ear. He picks them up one by one, running his thumb through the pages, looking at his notes, shifting his glasses around his nasal cavity. The stories that have an “X” marked at the top of its first page are the stories that interest him most. This “X” represents a personal connection. He’s all about intention. He likes a sentence you wrote or a character you created in a way he thinks the majority of us will agree.

He begins to read what the fiction writers at my overly priced private college call “chapter one of my novel.”

While he’s doing this, we, the students, must figure out which one of our classmates wrote it based on themes, voice, and other storytelling devices we have a hard time pinpointing at 8:30 in the morning.

This particular introductory chapter is about two teenage boys who have an eventful life as post-pubescent drug dealers—a loud pack sold here, a drug bust there. They are having a wild conversation about how “lit” their night was in a school auditorium. For it to be rooted in drama, the comedic timing is impeccable. It isn’t corny or underdeveloped like most of the things we hear. It has potential. Style even.

Everyone is laughing at the youthfulness of it all, the “urban fiction” aesthetic of it all. The genre is an a.k.a. for “stories with a lot of black characters,” which makes me squirm because I know it could just be called fiction, could just be called literature, like everything else that is well written and involves culture, sex, and violence. But this is not important.

Here’s what’s important: I know it is coming before it even comes. It’s just a guttural, immediate, sickening feeling that I come across in these classrooms far too frequently. There’s no other way to explain it besides intuition.

I look around the room as the story continues and try to assume who these pages belong to.

There’s a black girl and a black boy in the classroom—one me—one more than my usual set of classmates. He looks like me when I was a little girl, hiding behind my darkness. We’re the exact same color; he could be the brother I never had. By default, I automatically gravitate to him for mental comfort. I try to pull him to me with silence, give him a subliminal nudge of the shoulder.

I’m begging him to say something before it’s too late.

I’m begging him because I can’t do it myself. But all he is allowing me to look at are his eyelashes stretch out over his face like wings.

He’s looking down at his feet.

He’s waiting, too.

Our fiction workshop professor is deep into this narrative now. He’s immersed himself into this world these words are allowing him to live in. His voice inflects during dialogue; his shoulders sway in a different, cooler, hipper way. I think he’s about to come out of his chair. He is making up the inflections he thinks these black characters might use and I close my eyes and listen.

I’m waiting, too.

I know this boy knows something I don’t. I feel him hold his breath at what’s coming and I follow suit. Because I know it always comes. We know it always comes.

And we know they always, always, go out of their way to say it whenever they can.

Because we’ve never seen any of them prove us wrong.

We wait apart, but together.

“We lit… NIGGA!” Our fiction workshop professor yells out. He says more words, then “NIGGA!” again.

I’m listening but I’m not.

He says it again. “NIGGA!”

The laughs that were previously in the air turn into thick slices of greasy tension; the swelling is overwhelming. I guess the ten of us agree the last thing we want to do is listen to a white man say nigga as if he possessed a second tongue this early in our day.

This word affects us all in odd ways, no matter the differences in these ways. This word coming out of his mouth makes us all feel something we would rather not be feeling.

The singular window in this room is south of my fiction workshop professor; it’s directly opposite of his chair. The close-knit confines are supposed to be used as a space to make us feel safe—I just feel suffocated, defenseless, weak. I don’t know how to back out of the circle without breaking the trust, without breaking up this mini-therapy session by my monotony. Twelve stories up, there’s nowhere to go, nothing to see. Outside of the window is only a brick wall with brown stains scattered here and there. There are always things around to remind me of who I am.

I feel like they are expecting me to say something—my classmates. Not to defend myself, but to defend them. Like they want me to say I know they’re not racist. Like they want to me to say I’m okay so they can enjoy the story again. I feel like these rooms are always expecting me to say something.

Our fiction workshop professor is basking in the spotlight; I can see him glowing the deeper he gets into the story. He is free from his suppression—free from all inhibition. But all I keep hearing is:

NiggaNiggaNiggaNigga

NIGGA?

REAL NIGGA.

Don’t you ever forget you just a nigga.

This is all I hear for the remaining three hours of this class. It is on a loop in the center of my skull, it is on fire in the center of my soul.

We sit on opposite sides of the semi-circle—the black boy and the black girl. But we are sitting directly across from one another. I can see his whole face. I look at him and think:

I pray this is your story and not theirs.

I think:

Can you believe this shit?

I think:

This is two weeks in a row.

I think:

Should we be mad? Because I am. Are you?

This last thought is the one that confuses me constantly.

The black boy who wrote this story doesn’t look at me during this entire exchange I’m desperately trying to have with him, but he’s in tune with everything I’m saying. We have the same reactions. We speak similar human vernaculars. I told you before he is my brother. He is shifting in his seat, falling out of his black skin. I think he is embarrassed to sit in it for too long. I am shifting in my seat, falling out of my black skin. I am embarrassed that I am not wearing mine well in this moment.

Please be your story is what I’m saying. It has to be, because then, at least a small microscopic ounce of me will begin to cool down, begin to forgive myself for staying quiet.

When our fiction workshop professor is done, everyone in the class guesses that the story with copious amounts of nigga in it is the black boy’s. I don’t put a bid in during this auction. I’m thinking. I’m remembering the silence that erupted the vicinity when it was said. My anxiety has tripled. I’m wondering would there have been an internal struggle, an immediate muteness, if there were no black people in the room.

Everyone is right about who’s story it is.

My professor smiles at our attention to detail.

I’m thinking globally, universally, as he hands this boy back his story, why must white people, as an institution, as a system, thrive off of taking, of getting ahold of, everything, even the name of persecution, even things they don’t really want.

I’m thinking realistically about whether or not my classmates would have kept laughing if I weren’t there.

And this thought is the thought that always gets me. This is not the first, or twelfth time I have been in this predicament. I know this won’t be the last.

The use of this word in the voices of black characters should be expected. This is fine. I am proud of this boy for not straying from its excessiveness, its necessity. This word is his to use whenever he sees fit.

The way this word can shift a room when it comes out of his mouth makes me feel worthy of something, of myself, mostly. But the way this word can shift a room when it’s coming out of anyone else’s mouth just ain’t right.

The way it is casually reiterated from the voices of nonblack readers is high up on my list of suspect, closeted, confederate-flag-hanging behavior. The eagerness is in their voice boxes; the affection is in their enunciation. It feels like a sideways love tap.

If I’m being honest, part of me feels like they do this on purpose—he picked this boy’s story for this game, on purpose. I am past giving the benefit of the doubt. I am past having to teach myself tolerance, past having to make excuses for grown folks. Maybe he liked the story. The writing was that good. Maybe he asked this boy beforehand and I’m mad at the wrong person.

It’s a long list of considerations I am conflicted by. Did they say it with ill will? Did they say it too confidently? Did it fall too loosely off their lips? I try to diagnose them before I give up.

It’s an out of body experience. I want to walk out of the room. I want to interrupt the narrative, but I’m not that brave, and I’m not this worthless.

Throughout my years as a college student, I’ve noticed that outside of what’s cultivated by students in class, professors take pride in assigning these texts. The black “classic” writers that taught them something about their whiteness—Baldwin, Morrison, Hughes, Ellison—in hopes to include me in the classroom narrative to some extent. They depend on them. They read from their passages in class, and then they look my way to complete their thought. I know they choose these black stories to show they didn’t forget us, didn’t forget me. To show we exist in their curriculums… but if they took the time to ask their singular student of color how they feel, they would know that they’re disregarding us in the same motion with which they present these peace offerings.

The main problem is the history that is re-lived when hearing a white person say “nigga.” It just doesn’t sound good. It is an instantly unstable, volatile feeling. I think of how deeply respectability politics have played a role in my life. How I’ve attempted to excuse a lot previously in fear of something I can’t even consciously name. I’m tired of the same ol’ stories. It reminds me of the ways deep American whiteness always tends to collide with deep American blackness, like we are in constant heat with one another.

“Nigga” is like a collision that bruises me when my fiction workshop professor says it. It reminds me when my white African American poetry professor asked if it was okay if she said it sometimes, given the topic of her course and all. But there are only so many times I can pick myself back up without it leaving a permanent mark.

This feeling isn’t the only factor that changes the trajectory of the classroom. Because it’s not like black folks don’t know it is said when we’re not around. It’s the question of, Do I have the right to feel a way about it. Are these feelings invalid because:

  1. A black person did write the story.
  2. It’s just a retelling with no intention to harm me, but with intentions that also aren’t meant to shield me either.
  3. I cannot see myself ever giving away the license to make me uncomfortable due to the color of my skin, no matter what word I put on that page.

 

The common excuse when confronted is that by reading it verbatim, they are honoring the author’s integrity; they are staying true to its authenticity, as if the only way to be authentic to a black person’s work is not to gentrify our diction.

I’m conflicted by this excuse, too. Not in the sense where I don’t understand what they mean by it, but because authenticity is the justification. I don’t care how much you are inspired or fond of these black writers and artists—integrity would be to just not fucking say it. Authenticity would be to spread the word.

If it were up to me, I would never have to hear any non-black person say the word under any circumstance in my presence. But when I look back, this hasn’t always been the case. I haven’t always felt this way, not strongly enough to say it out loud.

I grew up in geographical spaces that were limited to minorities. Spaces where other races saying nigga is just a part of the conversation, a part of our environment. A lot of my childhood friends are of Mexican descent, and one thing about these friends is they love to say nigga more than niggas. The first time I heard a Mexican girl call a black boy “nigga,” I was not even a teenager yet and I can remember thinking, Is he not gone say something to her? And it wasn’t long after he did what I’m doing now, nothing, that I was being greeted with “What’s up my nigga?” or anything similar to it.

I thought this was normal. My whole life this is what I was accustomed to. I never corrected them. I thought, “They’re not white, so it isn’t as bad.” But it’s just as bad.

They do not share what one of my favorite professors call, “a collective condition known as ‘nigga’” to which he expands, “I’m not saying it should be illegal for y’all to use it, I’m saying you shouldn’t want to use it given everything that’s happened after four hundred years of exploitation and institutional racism.”

I think about some of my good friends who have used it towards me, how we’ve used to towards each other. I know there is no malice in their throats. You can always tell when there is. I know they think we share a collective conditioning, because we grew up in the same spaces and were exposed to the same things, but in actuality, we don’t. We never will. The stakes this word holds for us will never be synonymous. I had to teach myself there would never be a moment where this word being spat at them could affect them the same way that it affects me. It is always utterly uncomfortable. Utterly hard to decipher in its complications. Utterly unnecessary. And this is what comes to mind when my fiction workshop professor says it.

I think, why couldn’t he just skip it. Say ninja or something. Say n-word. But I don’t really want that either. I don’t know what I want, but I know that replacing it doesn’t fix the problem. I just know that I don’t wanna hear it in any form or fashion: not the –er nor the –ga.

I do not know how to fix it. I cannot fight entire races of people who use it, but I know the problem still remains because they all think this is an okay thing to do, that it is a new world, that slavery is over, that racism is over, and times have changed from their points of view.

Throughout the past few decades, there has been talk of a “reclaiming” of the word within the black community. That’s the common reasoning when one who looks like me is asked, “How come you can say it but I can’t?” Unfortunately, a simple “Cause I said so” doesn’t work for the masses. I am not their mama. I cannot control their desires with a lash.

This idea of reclaiming “nigga” has never really caught my attention because I’ve been using it practically my entire life. It has never been something I’ve had to seek to get back. It just has always been around for me to pick and roll whenever I see fit.

But the same hasn’t been the case for folks like my Granny and other elders I know who have felt the painful beating of the word. And because they have, they aren’t in a hurry to get it back, to fit it inside of their vocabulary, despite the fact that it’s never left them.

It’s not unheard of for some black folks to not use it at all.

This is not an issue either.

What does cause problems is when there are claims made that everyone (including black folks) should just stop saying it all together.

I will never be on board with this. I am not willing to let go of one of the only things that truly belong to my people and me.

It’s a very exclusive, very tumultuous kind of privilege.

I will never let someone else hold it in their hands.

This feeling my fiction workshop professor appropriated is not just something that happens in classrooms, it’s in America’s DNA. This obsession everyone has of being able to say it because they don’t mean it “like that.”

I think of artists such as Quentin Tarantino’s obsession with this word throughout his entire film career and Paula Deen’s use of this word throughout her entire career. I think of the trajectory of rap music and rap concerts where the crowds are mostly young, white children and how obsessed they are with our language. They live for that shit. I think of Madonna calling her white son a nigga. I wonder if she calls her black son a nigga, too. I think of white women with black men who think they’ve made it past the racial threshold because they have black children. I think of white men who get off on a woman’s dark brown skin and kinky hair because it reminds them of the slave and the slave master. I think of how I will never love Michael Fassbender the same way again after seeing 12 Years a Slave and it kind of hurts me.

It’s like America as an entity thinks that if they are able to say it, we have forgiven them for their sins. It’s like they’re subconsciously telling me, telling us, that if they, the majority, can’t say it, then what makes us think we can?

Maybe the problem still occurs because I sit there and don’t say anything about it because I don’t know how to go about addressing it outside of shutting down completely. Without forcing a muzzle over my anger.

When I leave this class, I’ve not only workshopped this boy’s story, I’ve workshopped the usage of this word three times over in my head. I go to Facebook, a place where hope tends to die. I write a fast-paced status update that is filled with questions I don’t have the answer to. I write:

ok, so what’s the protocol on workshopping pieces with the word “nigga” in it? because i’ve been in dozens of situations where a piece by a black person is being read by a non-black person and every time i know a “nigga” is coming up i’m like just don’t say it, say “ninja” or something and they always say it and then my mood is ruined and idk if i’m tripping or the piece gives them license to do so or if i’m being too sensitive but just don’t say nigga if you ain’t a nigga, nigga.

My friends reply with advice like: “I totally agree… it’s very uncomfortable to listen to.” and “girl, you better say something.”

The girl who sits by me in the actual class comments, too. She writes:

You know, today in class when I was thinking how in England no one says that word and how uncomfortable I am when people read it or what I would do! I’m so glad for this insight.

She puts a wink-faced emoji at the end of her comment.

She continues in another comment, “…see I thought I would refuse to say it, but then I wasn’t sure if that would be more disrespectful to your writing?”

In my replies, I keep making it a point to type “LOL” to mask my seriousness. I reply:

see! That’s the dilemma I was having, like is it being said because they feel that by not saying it would take away from my artistic “credibility?” lol Or do they just not care that it’s a slur that still feels like fire when spoken? I don’t know. That why I asked the question because me personally, no. lol It’s not disrespectful at all to my writing to not say it. My writing would still be my writing with the omission. IT’S SO MANY LAYERS lol.

I don’t laugh out loud, or even to myself, while typing this response. I just say to myself: Niggas can’t even have nigga to themselves.

***

Image credits: feature image, image 1, image 2.


Kendra Allen is a MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. She likes the most offensive hip-hop and silence. Her essays have been published in Brevity and December Magazine. More from this author →