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Thoughts About Storytelling, Slavery and the ‘N’ Word

The recent discussion of the term slave replacing the “N” word in the classic novel Huckleberry Finn has inspired me to think more critically about the teaching of racial and cultural awareness in America. Replacing the term has sparked controversy among scholars; notably, literary experts and historians who claim that changing the term is an example of “sanitizing history” argue that the “N” word should remain in the text and agree that changing the term can lead to an eventual disinterest and displacement regarding its use.


However, I think the controversy regarding the change of terms is an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of these words; particularly from the perspectives of individuals who have been historically oppressed by their use. That is, we shouldn’t forget these terms or their histories. Rather, we should begin new discussions regarding their meanings and how we can positively embrace them in the classroom.


Well, how could the term slave be used more positively? Perhaps one way is claiming the word’s sordid past as fertile ground for highlighting the accomplishments of people who have endured, persisted and overcome the legacy of oppression around the world. In this light, the term slave is connected to redemption, resurrection and healing. So many people can’t get beyond the use of the “N” word and the term slave due to the emotional reaction the terms elicit when used.


In my estimation, strong imbalanced emotion associated with the use of these terms often serves as a barrier to racial understanding and healing. This is not to say that the emotion is invalid. Perhaps more energy could be focused on teaching how these terms could be remembered. For example, someday I will teach my child about Huckleberry Finn and perhaps I’ll share with her the meanings of the “N” word and slave. However, the emphasis in my storytelling will be placed on the positive experiences that evolved out of such a negative history regarding these terms; not on a change regarding their use.


The discussion about Huckleberry Finn relates to a storytelling realization I made recently about my own name. For years I’ve known that my last name, Felder, is German for “field-hand” or slave. Given the racial history of African-Americans, some might conclude that my descendants come from a line of slaves who were owned by German slave masters. I’ve yet to delve deeper into this genealogical analysis. However, I’ve thought deeply about my last name, its connotation and the story I wanted to share about it. As I explored its meaning from the perspective of slavery, I found myself strangely comforted yet still cognizant of how the meaning of my name relates to the history of slavery in the United States.


One connotation of the term slave is “helper.” Some people might argue that the term helper sounds meaningful while the term slave casts an evil interpretation as it speaks to the negative treatment of dark people around the world. An interesting point I considered is that the term “helper” refers to Jesus Christ in the Bible. The King James version of the book of Hebrews 13:6 states: “The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me.” In this context the term helper has a positive meaning; one that connotes protection and comfort. I make this biblical reference because slavery in the United States has been historically tied to a type of Christianity whereby slaveholders saw their captives as an aspect of their religious obligations. In this typological context the notion of Christianity largely addresses the obligations of the oppressor not the oppressed. 


As I continued to study my name I learned that my first name, Pamela, means “sweet.” The denotation of my first and last name is “sweet helper.” I find it interesting that this interpretation of my name casts a different meaning than the implication typically associated with the term slave. Furthermore, it connotes a type of help that is harmonious, tuneful and pleasant. This meaning makes me smile and think about my late mother and her intentions for giving me this name. After making this realization, the positive conclusions I drew from these other meanings overshadowed the term slave. 


What I gathered from this name exploration is the opportunity to contextualize the negative within something positive that continually abounds, no matter how negative the situation may sound or look. In relation to the essence of Twain’s text, teachers who deal with race in the classroom should embrace the idea that there is greater meaning behind the words; especially regarding one’s interpretation of freedom.


Dr. Pamela Felder is a lecturer in the higher education division of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania. Her professional background includes teaching experience at Teachers College, Columbia University and Camden County College, Camden City Campus.

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