Lakeside's "N" word poet responds

African American poet Mona Lisa Saloy defends reading her poem "The "N" Word at Lakeside School.
African American poet Mona Lisa Saloy defends reading her poem "The "N" Word at Lakeside School.

Mona Lisa Saloy, the African-American poet and professor from New Orleans who stirred controversy at Seattle's Lakeside prep school with her reading of a poem called (and using) "The 'N' Word," has now responded via email to the Lakeside community.

Spurred by the posting of a letter here on Crosscut from head of the Upper School, Than Healy, criticizing her recent appearance at the school, Saloy has written to tell her side of the story. Healy criticized the poet for failing to provide enough context for the poem and called the situation "unfortunate." In recent years Lakeside has been criticized for either being too insensitive or too sensitive to race issues.

This is not the first time Saloy's poem has caused controversy. For some background and explanation of her poem and its purpose, check out this phone interview Saloy gave to a blogger (and former student) posted on You Tube. In it, Saloy discusses when she thinks it is okay to use the word and when it is not. Saloy's sign off in her letter below is a reference to her book of poetry, Red Beans and Ricely Yours, in which the poem appeared.

Dear Lakeside School Administrators, Upper School Parents, and Guardians, the Affinity groups, Dr. Lindsay Aegerter, Abe Wehmiller, and the Assembly Committee:

Since the Lakeside Administration'ꀙs correspondence on the blog and some confusion around my intent was made public, let me clarify. Both the extent of introductory materials on New Orleans culture and my reading was planned in advance. I was invited to Lakeside School to present what no one else could on the culture and history as new knowledge and a basis for further appreciating my creative works. I introduced my final poem with a brief history of the controversial nature of the poem and stated that a high-school teacher in Virginia thought it brilliant for her students, that the poem was subsequently banned in the state, and that the University of Virginia Press published the poem in the anthology Furious Flower: African American Poets from the Black Arts Movement to the Present. The poem itself opens on the historic controversy surrounding the social movement to end the use of "The 'N' Word." It is in effect an argument, yes with litany effect, but largely with both humor and irony. While my poem "The 'N' Word is meant to entertain, it'ꀙs point is cultural information and insight.

Early Blacks in America survived centuries of degradation and injustice, oppression and humiliation all the while being denied language, native language, worship, the ability to family and procreate at will. How? Blacks survived by keeping their stories, their moans and hollers, their rhythms and chants. When given food not meant for human consumption, Blacks made "Soul Food." When toiling in fields, Blacks made works songs into "The Blues." Having come to American shores with a great sense of The Divine, to worship, Blacks invented "spirituals," what W.E.B. DuBois called 'Sorrow Songs." When Creoles were turned out of their quarters in New Orleans, they took their knowledge of European musical notation to their new "Colored" quarters — the home of those chants, moans, hollers, blues, spirituals, and Blacks developed "Jazz." As a result, one of the greatest African retentions is a linguistic prowess that allows Blacks to turn anything negative into something good. Take for instance the word "bad." Black popular usage turned "bad" into "good," really good, now appropriated by everyone.

My Poem "The 'N' Word" catalogues just how Black[s] did that; Blacks took a heinous racial slur and made it into a term of endearment, a marvel often overlooked by the larger culture. As an artist, writer, I must write my time, my culture, and interpret it creatively. There is no monolithic Black culture here or in the Mother/Fatherland, but there are many things on which we can agree, and the affectionate use of The 'N' Word among Blacks is a testimony of cultural longevity and uniqueness. The book talk after my reading was the platform for explanation; the students and teachers attending received further context and explanation.

Red Beans and Ricely Yours,

Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy


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Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.