RIDGELAND — The Feb. 11 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education carries two accounts of a white professor who was suspended by Augsburg University in Minnesota for using a racial epithet during an honors seminar.
Dr. Phillip Adamo, a professor of history and medieval studies, sought to discuss with students whether they should accept a euphemism in the place of the actual word used by James Baldwin in his book, “The Fire Next Time.” The passage in question, up to the offending word, reads: “You can really only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a n*****.”
Controversial events began when a student reading the passage aloud included the entire original text. This caused some discomfort among others, leading Adamo to openly discuss the use of the word, not as a racial epithet but as a subject for scholarly discourse. In doing so, he repeated the line from Baldwin twice, first with a euphemism and second with the spoken word. He then asked which version had more impact.
The next day his students, joined by others not enrolled in the class, discussed the event in his absence. They decided that his use of the word was harmful and that he in essence violated their safe space.
Adamo was suspended in January for, among other things, disrespect toward students and discrimination. Incidentally, this is the same Phillip Adamo who was named Minnesota’s Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2015. Augsburg University, where he is now vilified, awarded him for “Distinguished Contributions for Scholarship” in 2014.
So how does a distinguished professor fall so rapidly from grace? Simple. The Academy, under the guise of protecting students from harmful content, has removed unpleasant terms from the discourse. The hope is that a single word’s disappearance will cause the behavior it represents to vanish as well. Any reminder that a word believed to have become taboo continues to exist becomes a greater problem than the actual harm inflicted by one race on another without ever using the word.
The N-word has been and still is used by many as a weapon designed to hurt. Its use in such contexts should be stopped. That simply was not the case here. If Adamo is to be sanctioned for his use of the word, then should not Baldwin’s work be banned from the Academy? I certainly hope not. Not only was he a gifted writer, but “The Fire Next Time,” an essay to his nephew, provides one man’s honest assessment of race relations in America a century after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Supporters of Adamo, including the American Association of University Professors, have framed the issue as one of academic freedom. Student accusers see his action as being insensitive. Adamo certainly should have exercised more caution knowing how this particular word is a lightning rod for controversy and raises in many listeners’ feelings of oppression. That said, his suspension was clearly an overreaction.
Eliminating the word from our consciousness does not eliminate the injustices sought by its users. Racism has been and continues to be our national cancer. The cure will not be provided by those who cry wolf whenever a professor seeks to encourage scholarly discourse.
• Vincent J. Venturini, of Ridgeland, is the former associate provost at Mississippi Valley State University.