Professor who quoted James Baldwin’s use of N-word cleared by university
Laurie Sheck, the poet and professor who was investigated by her university for quoting James Baldwin’s use of the N-word in a graduate class, has been cleared of charges of racial discrimination.
After assigning Baldwin’s 1962 essay The Creative Process to her class at the New School in New York, Sheck had asked the students to discuss how the 2016 documentary about the writer and civil rights activist, I Am Not Your Negro, altered Baldwin’s actual quote, in which he had used the racial slur. A graduate student, who, like Sheck, is white, had objected to her language.
Following interventions earlier this month from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Fire) and PEN America, Sheck has now been exonerated, with a letter from the New School informing her that “after carefully considering the complaints and reviewing the evidence”, they determined that she had not violated their discrimination policies.
Fire had told the New School that the “misguided” case “warns faculty and students that good-faith engagement with difficult political, social, and academic questions will result in investigation and possible discipline”. PEN America, stressing that there “is a distinction to be made between a racial slur wielded against someone and a quote used for pedagogical purposes”, warned that Sheck was protected by the principle of academic freedom.
After her exoneration, Sheck said that if she had a “hope for what can come out of this, it is for a university community that seeks to open itself in the deepest and most informed of ways to the exchange and contemplation of ideas about which there is genuine urgency and concern but not consensus”.
“It is crucial that the right to do this be protected,” she added. “James Baldwin wrote that the artist ‘cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides’. It is a beautiful thought that applies not just to the artist but to everyone for whom questioning is the heart and soul of thinking.”