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The Orlando Sentinel

History of slur's use brings kids a lesson about respect
July 22, 2008

By Jeff Kunerth, Sentinel Staff Writer


Monday was vocabulary day at the Hi-Tech Learning Center in Orlando. Along with the word of the day -- patience -- the high-risk elementary school children learned about "respect" and "responsibility."
And the "N-word."

Dartmouth College student Jarrett Mathis explained the history of the word as a derogatory term and the modern-day attempts by rappers and others to popularize it as a term of endearment.
"Is everyone familiar with this word?" he asked the group of about two-dozen students crammed into a tiny shopping-center classroom.

They were -- even the ones who had never heard of Maryland, didn't know what slavery meant, or thought J.J. Redick was one of the best players in the NBA.

Mathis was invited to speak to the kids by Ernestine Mosley, a retired Orlando schoolteacher who started the Hi-Tech Learning Center 17 years ago to help disadvantaged and underachieving black children. The center runs largely on grants and donations and is furnished with cast-off computers and used office furniture.

On this day, Mosley's students learned that the N-word was derived from the Latin word for black -- niger. It was used by slave owners to erase the human identities of their slaves, said Mathis, whose appearance at the Orlando center is part of a documentary he is working on about today's black youth.

"They didn't want to treat them [slaves] with respect. The N-word was used to dehumanize them. Dehumanize means to take away their human qualities," Mathis said.

With the end of slavery, black people began to object to the term, insisting that they be addressed by their full names. They demanded respect, he said.

The N-word remained a derogatory term until the 1980s when the rap group that gave the world Ice Cube popularized it as a term of affection, Mathis said. No longer taboo, the term became common among blacks, especially young people.

In recent years, civil-rights organizations and black entertainers have started a crusade to ban the use of the word -- returning it to its roots in racism.

Mathis took that crusade into the cramped classroom of impatient summer school kids on metal folding chairs who know more about the death of Princess Diana than the life of Frederick Douglass.

He asked those children what the slaves would say if they heard people like themselves using the word today.
"They'd say it's not nice," a girl volunteered.

Lesson learned.


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