We have been following cases involving faculty disciplined or fired over the use of the n-word in classes (including courses on racism) or tests. Recently, a GW professor was removed from his class for such a reference. Now, “Down in Mississippi,” a play written by African American writer Carlyle Brown on the birth of the civil rights movement, has been reportedly canceled. Students objected to the use of the n-word in a play that tries to capture the environment of hate and racism of the period. Texas Wesleyan’s Black Student Association declared the reference to be harmful and “triggering.”
Calling for a boycott, the Association declared that allowing the play to be heard would “further hurt Black students and possibly students from other marginalized communities.”
The Rambler student newspaper reported that school and theater officials killed the production after a 90-minute campus discussion: “The main concern the students voiced was the ‘triggering’ effect of using the racially explicit word, which is repeated 11 separate times throughout the play, and how it can cause trauma to the black students in the audience.”
The decision of the school, in my view, is wrong and counterproductive. I have not read the play but the objection was to any use of this word. Yet, the use in the play is clearly tied to the period, a vivid (and disturbing) picture of what African Americans faced at the start of the Civil Rights period.
Ironically, the removal of such words can reduce the repellent elements associated with racists of the period. Brown sought to present racism in its raw and accurate context. It is also an attack on artistic expression — a trend that threatens the freedom of expression on campuses. We have seen a movement to remove major literary works like “To Kill a Mockingbird” from libraries due to the use of the word and some editors are removing references from such works.
Brown would likely argue that his work is meant to be triggering for viewers in seeing and hearing raw examples of racism. In a play on the start of the Civil Rights movement, the intent was clearly to capture a true and accurate depiction of the conditions that led to this historic movement. To demand that he sanitize the language is to deny his artistic and historical intent.