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Louder Than Words by Matthew Murray

  • Are schools supposed to be about exploring ideas, or to shelter their students from the realities of culture and history that shape everyday life in America? David Snead, the superintendent of schools in Waterbury, Connecticut, may not have known this was the question he was forcing when he moved this week to shut down a production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone at Waterbury Arts Magnet School, but that's exactly what he's done. In trying to protect others, all he's doing is hurting them—and all of us—more.

    The furor is erupting over the play's use of the word "nigger," which according to a New York Times ArtsBeat Blog entry about the incident, Snead believes should be verboten. "The use of the N-word is something all civil rights leaders around the country want us to stop using." In other words, a play about the struggles of black Americans in the early 20th century should not use a word that carries with it extreme power and relevance to both the black and white communities, even though the show was written by an African-American playwright who was aware of the show's baggage as much as he was its impact?

    For a school superintendent to take this position should be appalling to everyone, black or white, theatregoer or not, because it flies against the very nature of what his job is supposed to be: education. Neither Wilson nor this production's director, Nina A. Smith, nor the "civil rights" leaders to whom Snead claims to be beholden would ever begin to claim that the word in question should be used in casual, everyday speech. But in order to understand why it shouldn't, and the extent of the hurt it causes people of all races, it cannot be banned from art—especially when the art in question depends on it for reasons of history. Remove the word from a play in which it contributes to the gritty, untenable vitality of the universe, and the play—and, more importantly, its ideas—are diminished.

    This is not the only incident like this in the news recently. The publisher NewSouth Books decided to reprint versions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that had been scrubbed of both the same word (which it plays to replace with "slave") causing the trouble in Connecticut and the word "injun." But in admitting on its website that the words were "hurtful epithets," the folks at NewSouth destroy their own argument. It's precisely because Huck is confronted with such horrific descriptors, particularly as they pertain to Jim, that he comes to understand the depth of the damage words can inflict—on their target and on everyone else. Mark Twain was using the "hurtful epithet" not "merely" to make a point about Midwest society in the 1800s, but also advocate a better, more enlightened way for us to speak to and treat each other. Oscar Hammerstein II did much the same in his original lyrics for the 1927 musical Show Boat, and anyone familiar with Wilson's work knows that that was also his goal (if one more subtly rendered and oblique).

    Snead and NewSouth were presented with golden opportunities to teach crucial lessons about the intersections of race, language, and intolerance, but instead chose to take the most near-sighted and dangerous avenues open to them: ignoring the conflicts that not only shaped but have defined this country since its very inception. That famous line about "Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it" applies here: By pretending that American citizens have never behaved this way toward each other, by pretending that hate this deep never foamed on the surface of our national discourse, they aren't just opening the door to such things happening again—they are outright encouraging it.

    Luckily, the kids at Waterbury Arts Magnet School are in superb hands. Smith took exactly the proper steps for dealing with a production of this nature. Per the Times story, she "prepared a study guide for classes to talk about the play, and was organizing post-performance talkbacks so the cast and audience members could discuss the work. She also opened rehearsals to the parents of the cast and crew." She looked at the play, realized its problems and challenges, and decided that rather than whitewashing a very difficult era, she was going to tackle it head on and make her students view it through both the lens of the time and the one that proves how far we've come since.

    That is what an educator is supposed to do: Give students the tools they need to understand, analyze, and learn from the past, present, and the future. Smith is doing everything she can to deny one hateful word any magnetic power it may have accumulated in the only way possible: with knowledge. Snead and the people at NewSouth books could learn a tremendous amount from her if only they would spend less time making this very real problem worse.

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