The N-Word

When teaching a book that uses this word, what do most people prefer when reading it aloud? Skip it or read it? I addressed this issue with my class prior to studying Etheridge Knight’s poem “Dark Prophecy: I Sing of Shine.” The consensus was to skip it, yet when I did so, I felt that I was cheating Etheridge Knight, that I was changing his words and I have no business nor authority to do so. But being a white dude, I felt uncomfortable saying it aloud. Some of the African-American students said I should just say it because to them it’s just another word and often times they don’t even hear it when it is said. Most of the white students were in favor of skipping it, in fact I’m pretty sure all of them were. One African-American student didn’t like that Etheridge Knight usesd it. So I skipped it when I read it aloud. But I wish I hadn’t. I let political correctness win and I diminished the poem in the process. In all honesty though, I’m not sure I will ever be comfortable saying it aloud. Would love to hear others think about how they would address this issue?


I’ve included the poem for your own reading pleasure and to see what you think:

Dark Prophecy: I Sing of Shine

And yeah, brothers,
while white/America sings about the unsink-
able molly brown
(who was hustling the titanic
when it went down)
I sing to thee of Shine
the stoker who was hip enough to flee the fucking ship
and let the white folks drown
with screams on their lips
(jumped his black ass into the dark sea, Shine did,                                                                      broke free from the straining steel).
Yeah, I sing of Shine
and how the millionaire banker stood on the deck
and pulled from his pocket a million dollar check
saying Shine Shine save poor me
and I’ll give all the money a black boy needs –
how Shine looked at the money and then at the sea
and said jump in muthafucka and swim like me –
and Shine swam on – Shine swam on –
how the bankers daughter ran naked on the deck
with her pink tits trembling and her pants roun her neck
screaming Shine Shine save poor me
and I’ll give all the pussy a black boy needs –
how Shine said now pussy is good and that’s no jive
but you got to swim not fuck to stay alive –                                                                                         And Shine swam on Shine swam on –
How Shine swam past a preacher afloat on a board
crying save me nigger Shine in the name of the Lord –
and how the preacher grabbed Shine’s arm and broke his stroke –
how Shine pulled his shank and cut the preachers throat –
and Shine swam on – Shine swam on –
And when the news hit shore that the titanic had sunk
Shine was up in Harlem damn near drunk

From the Essential Etheridge Knight, University of Pittsburgh, 1986

P.S. There is so much more to this poem, that I hate focusing just on that word, but I really am curious as to how others feel about saying it out loud. I’m probably making it a bigger deal than necessary.

Nic Schuck is the author of Native Moments. Available now on Amazon.

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