Why your insistence is ignorance: An alum’s response to John Kleiner

Stella Onochie

Professor Kleiner (FYI President Maud & Professor Kent), 

The willful ignorance expressed in your letter to the editor is disappointing at best and morally reprehensible at worst. The examples of antiquated, centuries-old “racism” preserved in Shakespeare and Chaucer are problematic in their own right, but largely irrelevant here. Just seventy years ago, it was commonplace to hear N***** across the United States. At my elementary school in Texas, I was called a N***** several times; as an adult, the word was slung at me by a truck of drunk white frat boys who followed me as I frantically biked home from work in Newark, DE. Therefore, as an academic who has studied Baldwin extensively, you are surely aware that N***** is not a relic of ages past but a modern tool of white supremacy that still wounds, maligns and oppresses. It is a word instantly weaponized by the tongues of white men, women and children, regardless of intention. Indeed, your intentions to inspire intellectual bravery (as explained in your letter on 11/6) are just as irrelevant in the face of your intentions’ impact which I fear will further “poison the hearts” of those disillusioned by the English department. I am genuinely worried about the state of the English department at the College and the lack of a basic understanding of culturally responsive teaching — culturally responsive teaching being fancy jargon for “inclusively-and-intentionally-non-racist” instruction.  

Students who express concerns about your repeated reading/use of N***** are not crippled by a lack of intellectual courage, nor are their complaints indicative of a failure to appreciate “Baldwin’s language.” For one, is it accurate to conflate N***** with the eloquent rage that is “Baldwin’s language”?  

Not at all.  

Baldwin maintains in this essay, numerous interviews and writings that N***** is the language of white supremacy, a tool of oppression. Baldwin’s call for “braver readers and writers” and citizens of the world was not primarily directed to POC [People of Color] whom you would have enter your classroom “thicker-skinned” but to white readers who attempt to divorce N***** from its deeply violent and traumatic history. In doing so, you make it easier for yourself to evade the charge of complicity that Baldwin lays at the feet of the West. Your editorial and your cavalier insistence on using N***** publicly, whether that be during campus events or in your classroom, perpetuates an erasure of the “anguish and rage” that is my experience, and I am not even in your classroom. Or perhaps you mean to take the compliant silence and “astonishment” of your students as “tribute” per Baldwin’s essay, as you go about (however unintentionally) asserting your right to diminish the experience of some (if not the majority) of POC. The ignorance of the young children is understandable given they are divorced from our American context. But you are not. How, therefore, can you justify acting as if you “have no way of knowing the echoes this sound raises in [your students]”? How can you imply that the preferred reaction of your students should have been a continuation of the “American Negro’s education,” the goal of which is respectability politics?  

Calling someone a racist is very different than pointing out how the impact of their actions are reflective of racist conditioning. I am not calling you a racist nor am I asking for proof of your non-racist identity via a list of your friendships, publications, research, student relationships or class syllabi. But I am asking you to critically re-evaluate the manner in which you situate yourself as a white man into positions of power made possible by institutional racism and the supremacist structures of the ivory tower. Your pedagogical intentions do not outweigh your pedagogical impact.  

I took two classes with Sherron Knopp, professor of medieval literature, and fell in love with pre-17th century literature. But halfway into my second class with her, I stopped coming to class. When she eventually caught up with me, the weight of all my past experiences and traumas proved too much for me and I shared with her everything, everything, in the hallway of Hopkins Hall. When she mused that perhaps my difficulty in writing about the Wife of Bath was perhaps connected to my experience, I burst into tears. 

Professor Knopp gave me an extension on my paper (which I submitted), and while she was wrong — my history as a survivor of abuse did not make it difficult for me to submit a paper on the Wife of Bath — she responded in real-time to me and my experience. I cried because I did not expect to feel heard. Knopp did not “coddle” me or cease engaging me in robust discussion of that portion of The Canterbury Tales. But her compassion — her choice to listen and recognize my experience — was proof I mattered.  

Professor Kleiner, in what ways has your insistence on using N***** demonstrated to students and colleagues that their experience — that they themselves — do not matter? That there is a right and wrong, black and white way to engage in robust academic discourse in the public spaces you inhabit? 

The English department has a long history of systemic racism that unintentionally diminishes the contributions of students and staff of color. While decolonizing curricular systems can take time, it is relatively simple to critically examine problematic mindsets, privileges or expectations enmeshed in the white supremacy culture of which we are all complicit – POC and whites. But to do so requires a recognition of said complicity. To insist still upon departmental innocence is to “shut [your] eyes to reality […] and invite [your] own destruction.” 

“I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world – which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white — owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us – very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will – that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” 

–James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village   

Stella Onochie ’09  is Associate Achievement Director of English Language Arts for 9th-12th at Achievement First Hartford High School in Conn.