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A tough lesson about the N-word

Should a Chicago Public Schools teacher have used "nigger" in a sixth-grade class?

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Lincoln Brown wasn't thrilled with his given name when he was small. "Stinkin' Lincoln," kids would call him. "I wanted to have a normal name like my brothers," he said. (They're named Christopher, Peter, and Jonathan.) But by the time he was in high school, "I liked the way people would react. I had done a lot more reading and learned about the civil rights movement, and I was a fanatic about Civil War history. People would ask me, 'Like the president?' 'Yeah, like the president.'"

In the 1960s, Brown's father, Bernard Brown, assisted a black community group that was working on employment issues on the near-west side. He also was arrested once during a protest downtown against Chicago school segregation. "My dad thought Abraham Lincoln was one of those people who redefined the country, and he was proud to name me after him," Lincoln Brown said. The elder Brown was an esteemed Hyde Park resident—he was dean of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the University of Chicago campus from 1979 through 1995.

For those and other reasons, Lincoln Brown seems an unlikely person to use verbally abusive language in a class of sixth graders, almost all of them African-American. But that's what principal Greg Mason said he did on an October morning in 2011, in room 216 of Hyde Park's Murray Language Academy, where Brown is a teacher. (Brown is white, and Mason is black.)

Brown's alleged offense was using the word "nigger" in class.

Brown, who was suspended without pay for five days, sued the Chicago Board of Education as well as Mason, contending his First Amendment right of free speech was violated. It's a modern version of Brown v. Board—with semantics, rather than segregation, at the core of a dispute about race in the classroom.

"Nigger is and has long been the most socially consequential racial insult," Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, who's African-American, wrote in his 2002 book, Nigger. Kennedy searched court cases in the LexisNexis database as of 2001 and found "kike" in 84 cases, "wetback" in 50, "gook" in 90, "honky" in 286—and "nigger" in 4,219.

While it's still used contemptuously, "nigger" isn't always negative, Kennedy observed. When African-Americans are speaking to each other, "nigger," and especially its more genial cousin, "nigga," can be an affectionate greeting, a compliment, or a term of respect, he wrote. "The black comedians and rappers who use and enjoy nigger . . . eschew boring conventions, including the one that maintains, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that nigger can mean only one thing," Kennedy wrote.

Or, as the rapper Mos Def told Blaze magazine in 1999: "When we call each other 'nigga,' we take a word that has been historically used by whites to degrade and oppress us, a word that has so many negative connotations, and turn it into something beautiful, something we can call our own. I know it sounds cliche, but it truly becomes a 'term of endearment.'"

Although in gangsta rap, not always. Consider Rick Ross, in "Hold Me Back": "Niggas ain't gettin' money, but they got an opinion. . . . Niggas watch who you fuckin' just to hate on your bitches. . . . They all pussy-ass niggas, pussy-ass niggas."

Brown wasn't stressing the word's softer side to his sixth graders in room 216 that day. Quite the opposite, he told me. And as his lesson's aftermath would show, a spontaneous examination of the use of "nigger" can have complications that go beyond the word itself.

Brown is still teaching at Murray, and Mason is still the principal. Mason didn't return my calls for this story. Chicago Public Schools officials also wouldn't comment. "It would be inappropriate for us to discuss ongoing litigation," spokesperson Robyn Ziegler said.

Brown, who will turn 50 in March, has been a teacher for 21 years, all of them in predominantly African-American grade schools on the south side. He's taught science, social studies, history, and writing. He's blue-eyed and pink-complected, and has a fleshy face and dimpled chin. He was dressed in workout clothes the two times we talked in person. He has a nervous demeanor, but speaks with utter certainty about himself, and is not inclined toward understatement. He seemed weary and embattled. "I'm just someone who wants to do my job the best I can possibly do it, and not be afraid to be who I am with my students."

Mason has been friendly to him since he sued, Brown said—which only makes Brown more uncomfortable. "Obviously, his handlers are telling him not to do anything stupid and antagonize me in any way. He still calls me by my first name, which is terribly annoying because I believe he's lost that privilege. I mean, he accused me of some pretty horrific things. He slaps me on the shoulder like nothing's wrong, and he commends me for the work I'm doing. I say, 'Thank you, Mr. Mason,' 'Yes, Mr. Mason.' It's extremely painful."

Murray Language Academy teacher Lincoln Brown
  • Jeffrey Marini
  • Murray Language Academy teacher Lincoln Brown: ā€œIā€™m just someone who wants to do my job the best I can possibly do it.ā€

"There is nothing necessarily wrong with a white person saying 'nigger,' just as there is nothing necessarily wrong with a black person saying it," Kennedy wrote in his book. "What should matter is the context in which the word is spoken—the speaker's aims, effects, alternatives. To condemn whites who use the N-word without regard to context is simply to make a fetish of nigger."

To know a person's aims, it may help to know his history.

Brown went to public schools—Ray Elementary in Hyde Park, then Kenwood Academy. Both schools were predominantly black. The families of most of his white friends either moved out of the neighborhood before his friends reached high school age, or their kids went to private schools.

Whites and blacks were largely segregated at Kenwood. Brown was in accelerated classes, whose students were mostly white. In the cafeteria, the white kids sat at the front "and then there was this expanse of empty tables, and then going around the corner it was all the other students." White kids didn't go to the school dances.

Brown said he nonetheless had many African-American friends at Kenwood, including a girlfriend. "I think it was more difficult for African-Americans who were friends with us—they were called whitey and things like that."

He tried to play basketball his freshman year, but he was the only white player and got beat up a couple of times by teammates in the locker room. "I decided not to play because the coaches weren't really supporting me the way they should, and my parents were worried about it." He did play baseball, and that was a better experience. He and two teammates were the only three whites in the league Kenwood played in, he said. "We'd go to some really bad neighborhoods, and a lot of the African-Americans on our team would kind of huddle around us to make sure nothing happened to us."

He got his undergraduate degree in child psychology at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, then spent several years pursuing a master's in journalism at the University of Minnesota. But he was having trouble finishing, and before he did his mother told him about a "Teach for Chicago" program that would allow him to work while studying toward a master's in education at Loyola University. "I was kind of floundering, and I wanted some structure in my life, so I decided to do that," he told me.

He was accepted into the program, and in 1992, after one summer at Loyola, he and his classmates were dispatched to schools near the Robert Taylor Homes housing project on the south side. Brown was assigned to teach fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Farren Elementary, at 51st and State. The kids were black and poor, and many had drug-addicted parents.

"The first day I met the students, a kid about my size, even bigger, said he wasn't gonna be taught by no white boy," Brown recalled. "So I grabbed him by his collar and just chewed him out, and told him if he ever called me a white boy again I'd knock his teeth out.

"If I hadn't done that then I probably wouldn't have been as successful," he said. "I had to show them that I was gonna stand up for myself—that I wasn't gonna say, 'Oh, well, I'm white, let's sit down and talk about racial inequality.'"

He said he was only bluffing about hitting the boy. "I saw so much abuse of kids at that school—and I reported it. I would never hurt or hit anyone."

Brown said the boy became a loyal student. "I had him for three years. He said, 'You be like a reverse Oreo cookie—black on the inside, white on the outside.'" Brown considered that the ultimate compliment.

"I got really attached to the kids there," he said. "I always talked to them like equals. It was incredibly important that I establish structure. The only thing some of these kids had was school." Among his colleagues in the teaching program, "I was the only one who stayed—everyone else quit."

After four years at Farren, he was ready to move on. He taught at three other south-side grade schools between 1995 and 2004. His displeasure with principals was often a factor in his decision to leave a school.

When Brown was teaching eighth grade at Bret Harte in Hyde Park in 2003, he began using curriculum material offered by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance magazine to help his students learn about the civil rights movement and the Holocaust. In a letter published in the magazine, Brown said the material had "enhanced my students' understanding of their own African American roots." He added that he'd always encouraged his students "to delve into the important issues of our society."

In 2004, the woman who then was principal at Murray called him and offered him a job. He'd applied to the school a year earlier. "It was my dream job, because it was a magnet school and it was multiracial with high expectations for students."

The principal who hired Brown at Murray soon quit. Her replacement was a principal Brown had worked for before and liked. But in 2008, he retired and was replaced by Mason, who'd been an assistant principal at a south-side elementary school.

Brown told me he got along with Mason at first, "but I was seeing things that were very disturbing." One of his colleagues, a teacher Brown respected, got suspended twice by Mason. "I'd never even heard of such suspensions before, and I've taught in some of the worst schools." (The teacher Brown's talking about, who's still at Murray, confirmed being suspended twice by the principal, but declined to comment further.)

Then early in 2011, Brown himself was suspended. He said he'd come upon a sixth-grade student in the hallway who was wearing a full-size backpack. Brown said he thought this was still against CPS rules, as it once was. He said he'd warned the student repeatedly not to wear the backpack. In the hallway, he told the boy to hand it to him. Brown unzipped it, intending to remove its contents and take away the backpack. Books spilled to the floor. Brown pulled out a couple other items, the last of which was a pair of boxer shorts. The student grabbed the shorts from Brown, stuffed them in his pocket, and ran off.

The boy had been in counseling and had previously been hospitalized, but Brown said he was in the dark about most of that. The student was out of school for a time after the incident, and one of his parents complained that Brown had caused him emotional trauma. Mason told Brown that a ban on backpacks was up to a school's principal, and he had no such rule.

Mason charged Brown with "cruel, immoral, negligent, or criminal conduct or communication to a student, that causes psychological or physical harm." Brown fought the charge at first, but ultimately agreed to accept a one-day suspension without pay. He said he did so because "I just needed closure," and because Mason assured him the suspension "would remain in Murray's file, never to be seen by anyone else."

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The episode that led to Brown's second suspension took place six months after his first one—on October 4, 2011.

Brown was preparing to teach a grammar lesson to sixth graders that morning in room 216. He heard a commotion in the hallway before the students entered the room, he told me. He went out to the hall and saw two girls yelling at each other. Other students were gathered around them, and some of the boys were laughing.

He thought he could handle the situation better inside the classroom, and so he got everyone into 216. He saw one of the two girls passing a note, and he took it from her. It was a rap of about ten lines. Brown told me he wanted to ease the tension in the room and distract the girls to avert a fight—so he started reading the rap in a singsong voice. The students "were cracking up, seeing this old white dude doing this," he said.

But then he noticed that the other girl wasn't cracking up—she was crying. Another girl in the classroom told Brown that the rap was aimed at the girl who was crying. "And so I went to her and apologized profusely," Brown told me. He asked her if she wanted to go talk with the assistant principal about the matter, but she said she didn't want to miss class. The girl from whom he'd confiscated the note admitted writing it, but said the crying girl had first written a rap ridiculing her.

Some of the boys in the room were begging him to finish the rap, he said. But by then he'd seen what else was in it. "It had 'bitch' and 'fuck,' and it had the word 'nigger' in it two or three times," Brown told me. He recalled that he tore up the note in front of the class. "I said, 'I'm not reading any more because it's really hurtful, and secondly, it has some words in it that I just find disgusting.' They of course wanted to know what they were, and I said I refuse to say anything derogatory towards females or towards anyone's race. I said I definitely would never say the N-word—and they wanted to know why.

"That's when Mason came in. He has this habit of just walking in and sitting down. I never thought that I should not continue this, because the kids were very much interested. And I said the word—I said 'nigger.'"

As he said the word to me, Brown looked like he'd just tasted something spoiled. He told me he wanted his students to hear the word from someone they respected, because he thought it'd make them consider their own use of it. He said he told the students it was one of the hardest words for him to say—that it made him sick to his stomach. He told me he used it in the discussion only that once, and used "N-word" the rest of the time.

"And I said, 'It doesn't sound right coming from my mouth, does it?' And they all said, 'No, it doesn't.'" Brown told the students he heard them using the word often on the playground, and asked them why it was OK for them to say it. "One of them said, 'It's part of our culture,' and I said, 'Then why don't your parents like it?' 'It's not their culture.'

"I was telling them, 'People are stereotyping you because of the types of words that you use. And also it hurts because your parents went through hell being called that regularly.' I started talking about the history of the word and how prevalent racial stereotyping is."

Brown told me that the two girls who'd been on the verge of fighting were deeply involved in the discussion and reconciled during the class: the girl who'd written the rap apologized to the other girl, the two girls hugged, and their classmates applauded. This happened after Mason left the room, Brown said. Both girls "came up at the end of the class and thanked me."

By the end of class, Brown was elated, he said. He felt that because he hadn't sidestepped a difficult issue, his students "could trust me more, and that they were closer to me."

Mason's recollection of the class, however—which he committed to writing as part of the discipline process—was a bit different. He acknowledged that he wasn't present for the whole period—he came after the class started, left before it finished, and was gone for a few minutes in between when he was called to the main office.

As Mason wrote later: "The very insistent [sic] I entered the room, I heard Mr. Brown discussing with the entire class of students on the word, 'Nigger.' 'Even today, I still hear people use the word Nigger,' stated Mr. Brown. He continued the discussion by asking the class, 'can anyone explain to me why blacks can call each other a nigger, and not get mad, but when whites do it, blacks get angry.' Mr. Brown allowed three students to answer the question."

Mason also noted that the morning after the class, he'd asked some of the students what they recalled about the use of the word "nigger" in class. One of them told him that during a discussion about bullying prompted by the rap, "the teacher just brought up the word 'Nigger' out of the blue," the principal wrote.

Mason gave his written summary to Brown 13 days after the incident, in a "pre-discipline hearing" notice. Brown consulted with a lawyer and wrote his own summary that day. He wrote that after he confiscated the note, "I quickly explained to the students the inappropriate nature of the poem, reading a portion of it to demonstrate the bullying nature of some of the lines." He didn't mention the two girls reconciling in the classroom; he said that after class, he asked the two girls to talk with the assistant principal about the incident, and that later that day, one of them told him that with the assistant principal's help, they'd worked out their differences.

Brown observed in his written response to Mason's allegation that in 21 years as a CPS teacher, he'd never before been accused of using racially abusive language. He added that during his career, "there have been instances when I found it necessary to stop a lesson to deal with a situation involving the most immediate needs of my students" and that the misconduct accusation was a result of his statements in the classroom being taken out of context.

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