Dr. Neal Lester’s current campaign to educate Americans on the intricacies of the “N-Word” began with an ironic catalyst.
An incident several years ago in a Florida middle school, Lester recalls, convinced him that the country had much more to learn about the word’s historical, cultural, social and psychological significance.
“At the time when then-Sen. Obama was running for president, I noticed that the word was proliferating in reference to him,” Lester said. “I remember hearing about this eighth-grade teacher in Florida writing on the board that the acronym ‘CHANGE’ means ‘Come Help A Nigger Get Elected.'”
Buoyed by the word’s increased casual use, Lester began conceiving of ways to educate people about its significance. That began about three years ago with a course Lester started at Arizona State University, where he’s an English professor.
“I chose to create a class around the word, because I wanted to know exactly what it was about the word that signaled something about race relations,” Lester said in a recent phone interview from his ASU office.
That work led him to create his Humanities 101 project, a series of dialogues covering a range of topics, including the use of the N-Word. His “Straight Talk about the N-Word” is the first of the national series coming to the Chicago-area next week.
A noted public speaker and national blogger, Humanities 101, describes Lester, is “a movement to think about seven principles: kindness, compassion, integrity, respect, empathy, forgiveness and self-reflection.”
Oak Park’s main public library will host Lester on Oct. 1. The library, 834 Lake St., will host the entire Humanities 101 series through Nov. 6.
“The goal of this series is to talk, listen and connect — that aligns with the library’s focus on tuning outward and connecting the community,” said Cynthia Landrum, the library’s assistant director of programs.
As a spin-off of his ASU course, Lester has brought the workshop series nationwide. His original ASU course spanned three months, and he stressed that its intention was not to convince students that the N-Word is good or bad. Rather, he wanted to explore its much deeper resonances.
“I wanted to spend 15 weeks looking at the word’s history and how that history was indicative of those six letters,” he said. “Could you separate past from present when it comes to using this word? Is it generational, and are people confused about its use? I wanted to have a critical conversation that moves beneath the surface of who can say it and who can’t.”
Lester’s course caught the attention of the Southern Poverty Law Center, where he would later become a blogger for its Teaching Tolerance website. The educational advocacy arm of the center, Teaching Tolerance publishes classroom teaching materials and a magazine with a circulation of roughly 600,000 readers. From there, educators from across the country began to take notice of Lester’s work.
The public reaction to his Straight Talk series has been enthusiastic, he said. Still, he hasn’t escaped pushback from people who feel that it’s inappropriate to focus such sustained attention on the word.
“On the one hand, there are people who really want to figure out what’s wrong with the word and the other hand, there are people who feel that we shouldn’t talk about it at all — that it’s too hypersensitive a topic,” he said.
Since launching the series, Lester has been interviewed by national radio and news outlets.
Humanities 101 is run through ASU’s Project Humanities, a multidisciplinary academic and research organization that promotes open dialogue on a broad range of social issues. Lester is the project’s co-founder, along with other ASU academics, and its director.
Its initiatives include hosting workshops, producing celebrity public service announcements, and maintaining a comprehensive website in order to engage people in the most pressing issues of the day.
Acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni and humorist Gustavo Arellano have both lectured for the Arizona-based project.
“Humanity 101 is an attempt to look beyond our own self-constructed boundaries; to look at ways in which there’s a shared humanity,” Lester said. “Everybody is not shooting planes out the air and beheading people. We want to focus on what’s going on everyday to allow us to feel empowered.”
Michael Romain is founder and editor of TheVillageFreePress.org