Nova Scotia

Black Nova Scotian students give lesson on the power, pain of the N-word

Hannah Kennedy and Keilin Willis, two South Colchester Academy students, are educating other Nova Scotia students about the N-word, an offensive term used to belittle black people for centuries.

'They used it to hurt me. They tried to put me down. And that hurt, it really does,' says Keilin Willis

Keilin Willis and Hannah Kennedy, two black Nova Scotian students at South Colchester Academy in Brookfield, N.S., give a presentation to Grade 8 students at Riverside Education Centre in Milford, N.S., on Tuesday about the history, power and pain caused by the use of the N-word. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

Hannah Kennedy remembers the first time she heard the N-word.

"My first encounter with the N-word was my Grade Primary teacher, I was only five years old," she told a class of 22 Grade 8 students at Riverside Education Centre in Milford, N.S., during a presentation Tuesday.

Kennedy overheard her teacher speaking about her with another teacher. In a later interview, Kennedy revealed what the teacher said: "She is such a N-word."

At the time, Kennedy, now a Grade 12 student at South Colchester Academy in Brookfield, N.S., didn't even know what the word meant. When she eventually learned its meaning when she was 14, she said she broke down.

Willis and Kennedy are educating other students about the use of the N-word and why it's wrong. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

That experience is what led Kennedy, Grade 11 student Keilin Willis and the few other black Nova Scotian students at South Colchester Academy to create a presentation that looks at the history, power and present-day use of the N-word, a racist epithet used toward black people for centuries.

Willis said he had somewhat of a different experience with the word.

"I was very young when I started learning about my heritage. Being a black Nova Scotian, I learned a lot. My mother taught me quite a bit about things. She made me read books," he said.

"I had never heard this word until actually recently. I really didn't even know what the word was. I never knew what it meant. Someone called me that word to hurt me. But I wasn't hurt 'cause I didn't know what that word meant."

When Willis finally found out what the word meant, he went back to the person to ask if they had said it to hurt him.

"It was tough, because a lot of people don't want to talk about the subject because the subject is very sensitive," he said. "And they used it to hurt me. They tried to put me down. And that hurt, it really does."

The pair told the class the N-word is more harmful than people think.

The word's dark past

To make their point, they showed a CNN video that explained the Latin origin of the word Niger simply meant black. However, Niger became Negar to describe the first shipments of African slaves to America, the narrator said.

"And with slavery, the word was contorted into its current, dark, degrading, hateful insult for African-Americans," said the narrator.

Grade 8 students at Riverside Education Centre in Milford, N.S., listen to a presentation on two students' experiences with the N-word. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

Of Riverside Education Centre's 550 students, about seven self-identify as African-Nova Scotian.

When Willis and Kennedy asked the class, which had at least one black Nova Scotian and one Mi'kmaw student in it, whether they've heard the N-word at school, some said they did. When asked if they had used the word themselves or heard their parents say it, almost all the students shook their heads with a no.

Some spoke up and said they had mostly heard the word in music or in video games.

Being part of the solution

At the end of the presentation, Willis and Kennedy challenged the students to speak up if they hear anyone say the N-word, no matter if it's used by a white or black person.

On Friday in Halifax, Willis and Kennedy will receive the Lieutenant Governor's Respectful Citizenship Award, for delivering their one-hour interactive presentation, titled What Is In A Word, to other students.

Grade 8 students at Riverside Education Centre in Milford listen intently to Keilin Willis and Hannah Kennedy's presentation, titled What's In A Word, on Tuesday. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

The award recognizes young people who show outstanding leadership and commitment to fostering inclusive environments in the schools and communities.

Douglas Sparks, one of two culturally responsive coaches for the Chignecto Central Regional Centre for Education, nominated the pair for the award.

Sparks said racist name-calling is still an ongoing problem in the school system.

Douglas Sparks is one of two culturally responsive coaches with the Chignecto Central Regional Centre for Education. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

"And they basically wanted to look at this word — the N-word — and find the history and the meaning behind it," he said.

"So in that way, it was an empowering experience. I've seen tremendous development of these young people based on going through this particular exercise.

"We're in the business of educating and I think it's creating a great opportunity for them to create dialogue with their peers in the classroom to talk about these uncomfortable conversations that we constantly ignore or avoid."

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email sherri.borden.colley@cbc.ca