The needler in the haystack.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Plainfield blogger beat Ledger to punch on use of N-word in West Orange schools


The language in question derived from a mystery novel by Agatha Christie.

It was a month ago that Plainfield blogger Nat Singleton, writing at Dumbed Down America, wrote about an incident involving the use of the N-word in a West Orange middle school language arts lesson (see here), beating the Star-Ledger to the punch.

The incident led to a complaint to the District by the student's parents, Demond and Tauheedah Baker-Jones, a friend of whom had tipped Nat to the story. Eventually both the NAACP and ACLU were drawn into the matter.

That complaint led to a meeting and proposed steps by the District to address the issue which formed the basis of a front-page Ledger story yesterday (see here).

Baker-Jones did not object to the use of the material per se, but to the lack of proper introduction and context-setting concerning the language in the selection given to the students.

The class was handed an excerpt from a stage adaptation of a 1939 novel by the famed English mystery writer Agatha Christie, a story which ultimately came to be known as 'And Then There Were None' (see more here).



The N-word reference was dropped
long before the 1945 movie version.

The plot concerned ten guests invited to a remote mansion for a weekend house party -- a classic English mystery motif. One by one, the guests are murdered in grotesque fashion, playing on the song of the title. (I remember seeing the movie as 'Ten Little Indians'.)

To date, the book is still Agatha Christie's most popular mystery, with over 100 million copies sold.

Christie is not thought to have had any racist intent in using the N-word, but was referring to a song that would have been well known to an audience of her time and place -- exactly the sort of condition that Baker-Jones says calls for teachers to set the context and perhaps have an important 'teaching moment' with their students with regard to ethnicity and racial stereotyping.

West Orange superintendent Anthony Cavanna, in a CYA move, says the district will hire an outside consultant to assess 'what the district is doing right and what it could do better'. Gimme a break.

Good pedagogical sense should have prevailed all along, no matter how large a percentage of the District's students were white, nor how small a percentage were minority. The fact that Cavanna says the unit has been in use for years without any prior complaint only makes the conduct more egregious, in my opinion.

There have been several film, TV and stage adaptations of the novel. It should be noted that the N-word reference was withdrawn very early on, in favor of an old rhyme concerning the fate of 'ten little Indians'.

Not really more sensitive, by my lights, but they must have thought so seventy years ago.

Nat closed his essay by noting he hoped he was wrong and that someone had played a practical joke on him.

Not so lucky.


DISCLOSURE: Nat is my partner. He has not seen this piece prior to my publishing it.



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7 comments:

olddoc said...

Long, long ago when I was a youngster the song was "Ten little Indians" no "N" word.Racial sensitivity was an unknown concept in the 30s.

Raquel said...

By the Superintendent's own admission, this lesson has been a part of the curriculum for years. This is an indication that until this family complained, no one, including the Superintendent, saw anything wrong with it. As an educator, I'm completely flabbergasted. This tells me that there is a major problem in West Orange that I don't believe a one shot diversity training will resolve.

Further, teacher evaluation systems speak to the teacher's ability to ensure that activities and assignments are appropriate not only for the age and academic levels of their students, but are also appropriate for students' cultures. West Orange blatantly dropped the ball on this one. I wonder how many children were subjected to this nonsense over the years and how many children suffered from low self esteem as a result. I also question why no other parent, regardless of race, ever challenged this.

The Star Ledger article states that the district refused to state whether or not the teacher involved had been disciplined. I think it's quite plain: the answer is no because they still don't believe they did anything wrong. Unbelievable!

Anonymous said...

Funny how you neither your partner, who writes lousy blog, never call into question the black rap songs that use the "n" word all the time.

Anonymous said...

I think your partner is a race baiter, as well as the SL. Maybe the two of you can invite Al Sharpton for dinner the next time he is in town. I'm sure he can give you some real meaning to the word "racist".

NatSingleton said...

Anon 11/14 6:10 P.M. I'm a 'race baiter.' Would you like to step out from your cloak of anonymity and debate issue? I'll bet that just the reveal of your identity will show that you are the real racist.

An incident happened in a West Orange public school and as sad as I felt about it, I felt duty bound to report but not sensationalize it.

As to the Rev. Al Sharpton, he may be misguided at times (ok, a lot of the time) but he's not a racist. I know him, he was at my father's funeral. He's a great conversationalist; we disagree on most things but I'd have no problem having him over for dinner. Anybody else you'd like to try and smear me with Malcolm X, W.E.B. DuBois, Stokley, H. Rap Brown or Angela Davis? I'd have dinner with any and all of them.

Prof. Williams said...

I'm with Raquel on this one--it's amazing that this has been a part of the curriculum. I teach at the college level, and when I introduce material like this, I make sure that it is deeply contextualized for my students. If I were teaching minors (especially youngsters), I would certainly question the appropriateness of the West Orange curriculum--I sure would like to know more about this.

Rebecca

Anonymous said...

Why is it every time race is the topic the person introducing it is a racist or race baiter. It ridiculous. If we can't talk about race issues then we are no where close to becoming an inclusive society. Please someone white, black, brown or red explain to me how this curriculum is appropriate? You don't need to be black to be offended by this.