DWill wrote: She says that Calpurnia considers Jem's talk about ghosts and spirits to be "nigger talk."
I think it is meant to be a way of saying the notions are "low" or "ignorant" in a way that Jem will respond to. Obviously White people also had such talk, though perhaps not as much or as vigorously. Calpurnia understands that she is standing in, to some extent, for their mother, and wants to "raise them right."
DWill wrote:Sometimes I wonder about how teachers present this book in classes. It's very popular still, I believe, in middle schools and grades 9 and 10. I wonder about the experience of the two or three black kids in an otherwise white classroom. Do they welcome discussing the book, or might they feel singled out and uncomfortable? I don't know.
I am curious, too. I have a sense that the recommended way of dealing with it is to have a discussion, attempting to put this sort of usage on the same level one might with other ethnic slurs and allowing those who are the targets to reflect on how they are affected, to create some empathy among others. But I have only heard about it third hand, never engaged in a discussion with an English teacher who confronted the matter.
DWill wrote: As for Calpurnia's remark, assuming that Lee is reflecting how some black people actually talked in Lee's day, what could be said to explain a black woman's use of the term for her people so pejorative today? Is Calpurnia herself prejudiced? I wonder whether young students have the perspective to be able to understand the social structure that existed in the segregated South, in which a woman like Calpurnia, restricted herself in what she could hope to become, nevertheless might grab ahold of whatever self-esteem she could, look down on others of her color, and perhaps not even consider them to be like herself. I'm imagining a world in which Calpurnia isn't even conscious of prejudice against black people; she might have once wondered about the reasons for white supremacy, but she would have come to accept that as the way the world is. Maybe?
I cannot imagine that Calpurnia was not aware of the social structures and the way they limited her and oppressed her kin and community. I suspect that in 1960 there would not have been any other honest way to represent such a comment.
I also suspect it was a reflection of the dilemmas of living with the oppressive system. We are now accustomed to careful parsing of terminology to avoid any microaggressions, but at the time the use of slurs would have been the least of the problems afflicting African-Americans. To avoid any reference to oppression would have been a massive circumlocution (I think this problem is still with us today, though to a much less serious degree), and having to acknowledge and even make use of the low status assigned to them, for instructional purposes, would have been one way of building up defenses against buying into that assignment. Which is pretty ironic, and should give pause. The observation which helped to sway Brown v. Board of Education was of a little Black girl who preferred to play with a White doll, and how can we get our heads around the damage done to self-esteem by a system so pervasive and violent that there was no realistic alternative to accepting it?
I had a really dynamic, intelligent Hispanic student last year who, when we discussed unemployment, explained about applying for 14 different jobs before getting a call-back. The first group he applied to were, "so White" as he put it, that they would not even consider him. He lived in a borderline suburb, just on the edge of Denver, and no doubt there is a real process of excluding young workers who don't "look the part". They might make a mistake, and no doubt it would be interpreted racially by some customers, and the organization can't afford to take that risk.