The N-Word

Kerry Ann Rockquemore offers advice and perspective on saying "no."
March 8, 2010

As a child of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, I cannot say the n-word unself-consciously. Nevertheless, it is regularly placed on my tongue — not by Joseph Conrad, since I no longer teach fiction, but rather by African American poets from Langston Hughes to Amiri Baraka. Some faculty members no longer teach Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus, since the title alone is enough to place an impassable roadblock on the syllabus. I have no choice. I am not about to teach African-American poetry while repressing its diction. So much for the notion that the word is forbidden in the classroom.

I take a certain pride in reading poetry dramatically. I urge my students to perform the week’s poems at home out loud before coming to class. I perform Robert Bly’s Vietnam poem “Counting Small-Boned Bodies” much as he did, in a wrinkled rubber mask suggesting ancient evil gloating over death. I try to occupy the bodies of the racist speakers in Robert Hayden’s “Night, Death, Mississippi.” But the n-word exits my mouth in a flat, decathected tone that does no justice to its injustice. The word “nigger” defeats me.

I would not myself say what Allen Zaruba did this semester, though I understand how both personal experience and a certain collective cultural inertia brought him there. A part-time faculty member at Towson University, he described himself in class as “a nigger on the corporate university plantation.” People now regularly refer to the corporate university’s plantation mentality, to an authoritarian style of top-down management invariably indifferent to its underpaid and exploited employees. And I, among others, have called its contingent teachers “wage slaves,” drawing the usage from Marx and Emma Goldman and the long history of the labor movement. The phrase resounds through Joe Hill’s songs. So Zaruba’s next step was surely inevitable. Indeed the administration’s decision to fire him summarily exposed the extreme vulnerability of contingent faculty members and reflected the very power relations his declaration evoked.

Zaruba was not teaching a Langston Hughes poem, so Towson University administrators finessed their abridgement of his academic freedom and due process rights by saying the declaration was not specific to the classroom context. But it was germane to every moment of every class he and others teach at Towson. It underpins the classes Towson’s students take. The exploitation of contingent teachers is now the bedrock of American higher education. Zaruba has the right to testify to his working conditions and all students’ learning conditions in every class he teaches. He cannot devote his entire course to those facts, but neither can he be compelled to suppress them. While the analogy between today’s contingent teachers and plantation era slaves is far from exact, and it is arguably clumsy and historically inept, the formulation is well within his pedagogical rights.

The staff of the American Association of University Professors has appropriately emphasized that Towson violated our recommended standards. Zaruba was entitled to a hearing before his faculty peers, not dismissal by administrative fiat. The 13th section of the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations makes it clear that part-time faculty members, like full-time faculty members, can be fired before the terms of their appointments end only for cause. “Cause” must be adjudicated at a faculty hearing. And every faculty member is due a hearing when a violation of academic freedom is asserted. Zaruba never received the educational equivalent of his day in court.

Of course a more enlightened and courageous administration might have expressed regret at Zaruba’s rhetoric while defending his right to use it and might even have acknowledged a certain logic underlying his claim. But that would have entailed a critique of Towson’s hiring practices. Instead administrators chose to behave like plantation managers, punishing him by fiat. If administrators wanted to sanction Zaruba in any way, they had to base their action on the recommendation of a faculty hearing, a procedure they failed to follow. But I do not believe Zaruba’s remark justified either intervention or punishment.

Zaruba apologized abjectly, more than he should have needed to. That should have put the matter to rest, but the apology was to no avail. The administration treated what was in fact an economic and political analysis in miniature — decidedly within his academic rights — as a crime so monstrous that frontier justice had to be meted out without delay.

Whatever else it was, Zaruba’s remark was not a racial slur. It was not directed at people of color generally, as was its 2007 use by a board member at Roger Williams University who was compelled to resign. It was not uttered as an assault on one or more students, as it was when a baseball coach at the University of Oklahoma lost his job in 2005. Zaruba’s declaration was a warranted expression of personal anguish, an instructor’s reflexive act of higher education witness. Firing him summarily undermines academic freedom, eviscerates shared governance, and diminishes us all. Allen Zaruba deserves his job back.


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