An Amendement to the First Amendment

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An Amendement to the First Amendment

Lauren Sweeney

Lauren Sweeney
May 12, 2006
Big Books of American Literature/Professor Dalke
Final Paper

“… thoughts are to that, as words to the body, troublesome; much speaking as thinking, spends, and in many thoughts as well as words, there is sin. True silence… covers folly, keeps secrets, avoids disputes, and prevents sin.”
--William Penn, Advice to His Children

"It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them."
--Mark Twain

The First Amendment of the American Bill of Rights addresses the concept of “freedom of speech.” Though speaking freely is time-honored patriotic tradition, what does it really mean? In the late twentieth century the idea of being “politically correct” began to outweigh the freedom of public speech. There has always been an unwritten understanding that there are certain things you just can’t say in polite society, but sometimes we allow the desire to be politically correct hinder our personal freedom.

As in the teachings of the Stoics which Amelie Rorty shared with our class, no one who lives in a community can ever be truly free. Most people behave in a way that is socially acceptable. We speak knowing that others will hear us. The sense of awareness of an audience impedes our freedoms through its imposition of a code of mores. However, there can be no communication without an audience. The definition of the word communication is “The exchange of thoughts, messages, or information, as by speech, signals, writing, or behavior” ( An “exchange” requires a give and take; a stimulus and a response. If I were truly free, I would have to be living completely alone with no one to talk to, and therefore no communication. There would be no freedom of speech because there would be no need for speech at all. These ideals imply that freedom and communication are mutually exclusive. However, as with all reality-based situations, nothing is ideal and there is constant negotiation and compromise. Because it is improbable and impractical to imagine a society in which there is true freedom of speech, we must rearrange our idea of what “freedom of speech” means. Because we cannot say whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want, I advocate a proclamation of ownership of the words we speak. Rather than “freedom of speech” we should focus on “speech without fear.”

It is far more efficient to say the words that best express our thoughts rather than to leave clues and assume the audience will guess at their meaning. (Though this process may be the basis on which most poetry is written, I am thinking specifically of an academic environment rather than an artistic one.) It is nearly impossible for anyone to be perfectly politically correct all of the time, but if scholars are more worried about hurting other people’s feelings than expressing true emotion or thought, they are wasting time. The use of euphemisms and silence is detrimental to the process of owning language. It does not teach people that there are thoughts which they must not express in a social setting, but rather that there are certain words which have powers of there own and become activated when uttered, like a spell.

As a result of this, there are a certain number of words in the English language that are identified only by their first letter. These words are most often spoken in shocked and furtive whispers by children, repeating an overheard instance of profanity to their peers or elders. This is a strategy for communicating the offending word without actually saying it and might be used for any word that the child believes she might be punished for speaking. The infamous f-word is probably the most famous of these “unspeakable” terms, but there is one word which adults and children, if they can bring themselves to say it at all, inevitably call “the n-word.”

Though there are multitudes of words in the English language that begin with the letter “n,” it is almost universally understood that the n-word means “nigger.” The word “nigger” is a term considered to be so offensive that people in polite society often refrain from saying it at all for fear of offending someone or appearing racist. This is such a loaded word that people are afraid to say it and feel safer by simply saying “the n-word,” though the implied meaning is understood and essentially the same. Not much changes whether a child says “fuck” or “the f-word;” the word is understood in both cases, but the way it is used keeps the child from guilt. The same is true of “nigger.” Whether the word is spoken or merely implied, its meaning remains the same.

“Nigger” is a word whose meaning is almost universally understood, but it is hard to say and surprising to hear, particularly in an academic setting. So many stigmas and negative connotations have become attached to it that it is difficult for many people to speak it out loud without prefacing it or justifying it in some way with a form of disclaimer. After hearing the testimonies of students who were taught Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in high school I was confounded by the lengths to which people would go to avoid saying “nigger” during those lessons. One student said that her teacher had the class pause for a moment whenever the word appeared while reading the text out loud. Considering “nigger” appears approximately 215 times in the novel, this must have happened quite often. Other students agreed that the same rule was practiced at their schools. Still other students mentioned saying “n-word,” as a substitute, and yet few said that they studied the book in terms of race. I wonder whether any of these students discussed the gravity of the word in the classroom or were taught why they were not allowed to say nigger. (I remember that at my school we barely even mentioned that the word existed. We treated it like any other word and barely acknowledged its presence.) I have since come to the conclusion that choosing not to say this unspeakably offensive word is an ignorant, immature and counterproductive form of self-censorship. By choosing not to say this word, its meaning gains even more momentum.

What is the point of pausing rather than reading “nigger” out loud? If all of the students are reading along in their own books, they see it printed on the page before them whether it is spoken or not. Even if one student left her copy of Huck Finn in her locker and is just listening, she understands what the pause represents. Whether the class says black person, Negro, n-word or nothing, everyone knows that Twain wrote “nigger.” Huck calls Jim a nigger. Presumably everyone understands that this is a potent racial slur and that in everyday interactions it must be spoken with caution, but in a classroom, refusing to say a particular word out loud only teaches the students that they must not say the word. It teaches that should the word escape their lips, they will have done something wrong. Choosing not to say nigger is a willfully ignorant act.

In speech, silence is a sign of reverence reserved for the most important of words that they might retain their sanctity. The secondary interpretation of this practice is that important words have power. To remember the dead or suffering we often arrange “moments of silence” as a sign of respect and honor. Certain orthodox Jews consider God’s name to be so powerful that they are not worthy to speak or even write it. By choosing not to say “nigger” we treat the word with the same kind of respect. Our silence gives it potency. This is a sign of respect that an offensive, reprehensible term does not deserve and a practice that we have the ability to end.

In this glorious age of technology, (if nothing else,) we are fully equipped to communicate. Through Instant Messages and text messages, email, telephones, pagers and some still even by post, we are almost constantly communicating with one another. Even television, films, radio, literature and magazines are sources of mass communication and bring messages from all over the world into our homes. In an age where communication is such a huge part of our lives, it becomes even more important that we understand how to do it. Words are used to inform and request, to help and harm, to make art and to make money but on a exponentially growing scale. We have the ability to do an enormous number of things if we choose our words carefully. In the instance of nigger, we have let the language take over; we have become subject to our own invention. We have let the meaning of “nigger” escape our grasp to the point where we cannot even say it in a conversation about language without first offering an explanation and the recognition of the term’s volatility. We are afraid someone will misinterpret the “sign” we offer them and become offended. We have let the meaning of the word “nigger” get away from us. Under these circumstances, the word’s meaning controls us and affects our behavior rather than us controlling the meaning of the word.

It seems that in our current society, prominent members of popular black culture are taking matters into their own hands. People like film director Spike Lee do it self-consciously, and in a way that reflects modern culture. One of the characters in his film Bamboozled intentionally takes the word into his mouth. In one scene, the son of the aging black comedian asks his father:

Delacroix: Why do you always use that word “nigger” so much?
Junebug: I say “nigger” a hundred times every morning. Keeps my teeth white.

Though this is certainly a myth that the father tells his grown son, and one that he does not expect Delacroix to believe, there is still a sense that through an active, intentional repetition of the word, it will somehow improve his wellbeing. Like brushing his teeth, he does it every morning and it “keeps them white.” Junebug says “nigger” a hundred times every morning to desensitize himself to its power. Like any other exercise, it conditions and makes him stronger. By repeating “nigger” to himself, he is reclaiming the word and its meaning.

Similarly, 50 Cent’s album entitled The Massacre was one of the top albums of last year. Out of about 12,000 lyrics on the album, he says “nigger” 174 times. (Compare that to the apparently shocking statistic of 215 times in the entirety of Huck Finn.) Rap is the one place in our culture where “nigger” is not only acceptable, but commonplace.
If words change through use, and gain power through silence, it is conceivable to think that they can lose meaning by over-use. In her book on the depreciation of manners in contemporary Britain, Lynne Truss discusses the use of the infamous “Eff word.”

“Even though there were hundreds of complaints from BBC viewers about the swearing at the Live8 concert, the word Eff every day loses some of its shock power. I would still be horrified to hear my mum say it, and I always apologize to her if I let it slip out when I’m talking to her, but it’s clearly the case that through sheer constant over-use, “Effing” is becoming a meaningless intensifier and will soon hardly be worth saying.” (Truss, 140-141)

This is a hyperbolic example of the case of one particular word, but it is certainly comparable to this discussion of the “n-word.” The same effect is already visible to some degree. It is interesting to note that at any bi-co party, you might find a roomful of drunk students, of all races, singing right along with 50 Cent, that “All a nigga really need is a lil’ bit,” whereas the same students hesitate to say the word in class the next day. The power of exposure and repetition on our sense of appropriateness is remarkable, but it is hypocritical to say nigger fearlessly in one situation and stutter over it in another.

There are only two options for a word like “nigger.” One is that it falls into disuse and loses all meaning for the common English-speaker, as was the case with “thaumatrope” (Barrow.) Few people know that a thaumatrope was a simple toy from the Victorian era because we have no need for this word anymore. Contemporary children don't play with thaumatropes. If people just stopped saying “nigger” altogether, the term would lose its meaning and exist in a word’s most harmless form, buried only in the most comprehensive of dictionaries. However, because books like Huckleberry Finn are still taught and because this word is still being used in our culture, it will not fall out of the vernacular anytime soon. Because it is still used, “nigger” will stay in the second category; it will stay alive, but its meaning can be altered.

There are plenty of words whose meanings have changed over time. The Biblical sense of the word “cock” is not the same as it is to modern American youth. The meaning of “gay” today is not the same as it was even fifty years ago. However, the only way to change the meaning of words is by using them. “Gay” took on its current meaning because some people used it to describe homosexual men, and then this usage became widespread. The situation with “nigger” is not irreversible because words are dynamic. Their meanings are constantly in flux, but in order to change our interpretation of “nigger” we must first change our attitude towards it.

With one of his notices to the reader in the preface to the novel Huck Finn, Twain made sure to clarify that all of the language in the book carefully written:

"In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding."

Twain wrote "nigger" 215 times because that is how his characters would have talked if they were real people. He was trying to be as accurate as possible in his creation of dialect and speech and even Huck tells us in the opening sentences of his narration about Twain that "he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth." Twain did not use "nigger" with exaggerated frequency because he himself was racist, or for shock value to prove a point. He wasn't trying to "own" the word. He was trying to create characters that were true to life.

Although I am not advocating that everyone go around calling each other “nigger” until the word becomes meaningless, I do believe that this is a situation where silence is harmful. Silence does “cover folly, keep secrets, avoid disputes, and prevent sin,” but this is a sin that needs to be committed. If children are old enough to comprehend the life-lessons in Huckleberry Finn, then they should be old enough to understand the power of the words within the book and learn to speak them in the proper context. Nigger is an offensive term and it does symbolize the days of a harmful hierarchy of racial supremacy, and this is not a legacy informed intellectuals should uphold. This is a legacy the Civil Rights movement struggled to end, but one which we unconsciously maintain in an attempt to be politically correct. The literal choice to be silent by not saying “nigger” is a choice to suppress issues that must be uncovered in order for our society to have a chance to address and adjust them. The choice to remain silent is the choice to perpetuate a society of repression. We are responsible for the words we speak because we have the ability to determine their meanings.

The example of "nigger" is only one example of the misuse of words but it helps to illustrate the paradox of freedom of speech in a politically correct atmosphere. Schools where Huckleberry Finn is banned because of the presence of the word "nigger" shelter their students in a potentially harmful way. Those who consider the book racist clearly misinterpreted Twain's ironic tone (if they even read it at all.) The book is an American classic because it is an excellent piece of literature, but it also teaches a valuable lesson about the history of race relations in this country. In understanding what nigger means and why it is offensive, students have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the beliefs that perpetuate racism and why they are so ludicrous. Students should have the chance to examine why Huck says it took "fifteen minutes before I could work myself to go and humble myself to a nigger" (Twain, 116.) What does that mean? Why would he say that? What difference does it make? Is Huck right? Is Jim right? Was Twain trying to tell us something through Huck's voice and experiences? It's important to our development as human beings.

Schools that ban Huck Finn altogether because of the presence of "nigger" are in denial. Are the members of the administration in those schools trying to cover something up? Do they think that their children have never heard "nigger" before? Do they think that by omitting Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum will stop their children from becoming racist themselves? What about the Civil War? Do they tell them it was a war about states' rights and economics or a war about slavery? Why would they try to hide an essential lesson about the equality of humanity from their children? That kind of censorship is downright un-American.

In class we discussed that during the 19th century, literature was seen as a tool for power. I do believe that writing can be used in such a way, and I do believe that there is power in words, but the power must be put into them. We understand the meaning of words in terms of other words; dictionaries provide definitions through words, not images or symbols. Words gain meaning through their context; when and how they are used determines their power. These are my words, this is my arrangement, this is my contribution, expressed freely.


Bamboozled. Prod. Kisha Imani Cameron. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Damon Wayans, Savion Glover, and Jada Pinkett Smith. DVD. New Line Productions. 2000.

Barrow, Mandy. “Victorian Toys.” Victorians. Woodlands Junior School. Accessed April 16, 2006.

Dalke. Anne French. Teaching to Learn Learning to Teach: Meditations on the Classroom. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc. 2002.

Massacre, The. Prod. Prod. Dr. Dre and Eminem. Perf. 50 Cent. CD. Aftermath. 2005.

Truss, Lynne. Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door. New York: Miraculous Panda Ltd. 2005.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Electronic Text Center: University of Virginia Library. 1995.

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