February 22, 2019

The Politics of Reading James Baldwin Aloud

“A series of dismaying events has transpired at Augsburg University, in Minneapolis. According to several undisputed news reports, it began in October, when a student read a sentence in class from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: “You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.”

Airing the N-word caused a commotion. The professor leading the class, Philip Adamo, asked the students if they felt it was appropriate to voice the word Baldwin had written. In doing so, Adamo repeated the word. Later, he sent to the class two essays on the politics of the N-word. The next day, some students asked Adamo to leave the classroom while they discussed the lingering controversy. They were joined by other students who were not enrolled in the course. He complied with their request. Later, after a flurry of emails in which Adamo continued to try to explain himself, the university removed him from the course. He has since been suspended, pending the outcome of a formal review.

This dispiriting farce discredits those who have played a role in it and undermines Augsburg’s claim to be a serious institution of higher learning.

First, there are the students who complained that they had been shocked, hurt, and made to feel unsafe by the professor’s “use” of the N-word. How can anyone sensibly think that Adamo was “using” the N-word, in the sense of deploying it destructively? As Adamo stated in his own defense, there is “a distinction between use and mention. To use the word to inflict … harm is unacceptable. To mention the word in a discussion of how the word is used is necessary for honest discourse.””

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