Wednesday, May 23, 2007



Most teachers who attempt to do discussions these days realize that the worst possible academic sin is offending a student. There are many ways students might be offended, but HATESPEECH is the most destructive and dangerous. HATESPEECH generally consists of obscene words or cruel racial epithets. Occasionally such words have to be talked about, and common usage across the country has decreed that when the need arises, the word itself is to be replaced by a code, consisting of the word “the,” followed by the first letter of the offending word, followed by the word “word.” For example “the n word,” instead of---well, you know. The ‘n’ word.

The good thing about this is that when you use the code, everyone knows immediately what word you mean, but you haven’t actually said it, so no one is offended.

One problem: a good many works from history, literature, etc. some of which have been declared classic parts of the liberal arts curriculum, were written by thoughtless and insensitive people (Langston Hughes, Mark Twain, etc.),and still contain some of these words. The best thing to do about such works is ban them from the campus, which is what we’re all trying to do, but that takes time. The second best thing to do is edit them so that they don’t hurt people’s feelings. That is what I’m trying to do. Every day I edit a new classic, and offer it for use in its new unhurtful-speech form to any teacher who wants it.

Here is an example:

Original hurtful work:


“Once riding in Old Baltimore,
Heart filled, head high with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
A-looking straight at me.

Now I was ten and very small
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me Nigger.

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December
Of everything that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

You can’t teach it this way. You especially can’t read it aloud this way, and you doubly especially can’t require a student to
read it aloud. If you do, and the student goes to the appropriate dean and complains of being offended, you will have to write a formal apology to the student and the class and the university at large, and you will have to attend sensitivity training. (I am not making this up.)

So what you should do is teach my version of the poem:


Once riding in old Baltimore
Heart filled, head high with glee
I saw a Baltimorean
A looking straight at me.

Since I was ten, a hurtful word
By me had never been heard
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and said the N- word!

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

Note that you have to underline “been” or it messes up the rhythm. I don’t know why Countee Cullen didn’t have that problem with his version. One reason is that was one of the greatest poets in the history of our literature. Or, maybe he just naturally had rhythm.

Also note: I have copyrighted the above lines, and you must pay me a royalty fee of $100 every time you use it.

Be aware though: sensitivity training, at least in Texas, is held at Texas A&M.

I’ll be waiting for the money.

Joe Reese

Author’s postpublicaction note:

It was only after publication of the above article that I became aware of the lines stating that Countee Cullen “naturally had rhythm.” I am so so sorry. I apologize to all readers whom I may have offended, to all future readers, and to all members of the family and estate of the great Countee Cullen. And if he is, somewhere, reading this, I apologize to him too. What I said was cruel, thoughtless, and inhuman.

I will be happy to answer personally all criticisms.

I can be reached at:

Joe Reese
Texas A&M University.


Joe Reese

Author bio:

Joe Reese is a novelist/storyteller/adjunct English teacher, based in Athens, Ohio. He has two novels: Katie Dee and Katie Haw: Letters from a Texas Farm Girl and Dear Katie Dee: More Letters from a Texas Farm (website: He’s just finished a novel called TAAS: A Novel of the Standardized Examination, which deals with one day in the life of a Texas high school driven insane by the desire to be EXEMPLARY rather than just excellent. He’s also written plays, short stories, articles, etc, and put in thirty-six years of English teaching, during which time he’s been fired by almost every institution of higher learning in the country. In spite of this his wife Pam still says she loves him, as do his kids, Kate, Matthew, and Sam. (Email:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I'd be curious to try and use the unchanged version to see if it would create a reaction in my classes here in Canada!

I don't think I will knowing all too well it wouldn't be quite "right", but I doubt it would raise much eyebrows in my students. The thing is, English being their second language, they don't figure how "bad" it is to use such words as the f-word, the n-word or the b-word considering it's all they hear coming from the USA in the form of hip-hop and rap music!

The f-word is fully integrated in Quebec French. Most people use it as a verb or a noun ("c'est ben fucké!" or "lui c'est un fucké!"). It's quite harmless and naive to use that word here. The other two are slightly less used but we can hear it from time to time, again without much reaction.

Anyway... Just fascinating to see what some teachers have to do in order to use or teach certain texts! I guess it all depends of the context you're in!