One project that’s come through the library recently is one that a teacher has done for the past five years. It’s on slavery, and it’s a companion to Lester’s Day of Tears. Over the years I’ve tried to explain to students that there was slavery in the North, that some blacks owned slaves, that not everyone worked in the fields – yet they still seem to cling to the idea that every slave was a Southern field slave that escaped via the Underground Railroad. Even my new LibGuide didn’t shake that.
This year, as one class was in doing their research, I heard one boy say to another “oh, that’s a bad word” as he pointed to something in a book. I wondered which word, and he just said “it’s bad”. The word? Negro. He understood that it wasn’t the dreaded N-word, but to him, anything other than “African-American” was bad. I tried to explain that it was an old word, that it can be found in many books because that’s what we called blacks – I could see that he didn’t believe me.
So I wonder what will happen when he’s older and studying some aspect of American history and sees the word Negro again. Will he automatically tune out the information the book has? Will he realize that over time, many peoples and places have changed their names and that doesn’t mean that calling them by an old name isn’t necessarily wrong – the source itself may be old and the information may still have value? It’s a fine line, but one that we need to draw for our students as they do research: understanding and using information from previous times is not condoning it.
Yet another example of how language has changed. How can we, as librarians, work with teachers and students to create a safe place for the older, “bad” words to be used (or read)?