Ethel Smith uses the “N word” with a whole lot of personal history behind it. She has placed it in context for generations of students. She spent a career teaching African American literature to mostly white students, mainly at West Virginia University.
Ethel was born in the same hometown as Alabama Governor George Wallace. She and other Black students couldn’t check books out of the public library. So a teacher checked them out for her.
When she and her fellow students finally got their own textbooks, white students wrote that familiar “N word” inside the covers and threw the new books in the trash. Her parents rescued the books, cleaned them up, and passed them along to their kids. The students were delighted.
Poverty, racism and an entire caste system designed to keep her down did not succeed. Ethel loved learning. Her love of learning is palpable – and infectious.
I met Ethel in her downtown Birmingham apartment. I know her son Marcus, himself a teacher of English literature educating high-schoolers on the profound words of authors like James Baldwin in a Black Lives Matter era.
There has recently been something of a controversy at Marcus’ school over the use of the “N word” in literature – even though that literature is written by the greatest African American authors.
Ethel tells me she once had a student who told her the word “made her uncomfortable.” The veteran teacher’s response? That’s what an education is supposed to do. That’s how you know it’s working – when it makes you uncomfortable.
As a fellow southerner and a fellow English major (as well as another fan of her son Marcus), I found Ethel and I shared a common era, only from completely different perspectives. I went to an all-white private school designed to be segregated. She went to an all-Black public school designed to be segregated.
I don’t use the “N-word.” But I firmly believe it should be taught – exclusively by people who know it’s history, derivation and usage. You don’t want kids just hearing it on the street.