Eddie Moore Jr., stood in the front of a darkened room in The Bush School, his face obscured in shadow. Off to the side, a door opened, a shaft of light slicing the gloom. The door slammed shut.
"Inside the door," Moore announced, "just walked a nigger."
The overhead lights flickered on.
"Now process what that image looks like," he said.
And with his invitation to a crowd of more than 100, a forum entitled "The N- Word" commenced. At its core, the forum hoped to illuminate the complex emotions swirling around one of society's most charged words: nigger.
The first step for those gathered that Valentine's Day evening was to speak aloud one word that described their vision of a nigger.
"Come on," prodded J.W. Wiley, lecturer on philosophy and minority studies at Plattsburgh State University and co-facilitator of the forum with Moore. "Don't be shy."
Soon the crowd began shouting out descriptions: "Ghetto." "Despicable." "Unemployed." "Friend." "Threat." Moore, scribbling the words on a broadsheet with a black marker, struggled to keep up. "Unknown." "Shit." "Illiterate." "Uncouth." "Outsider." He attached the sheet to the front wall, the paper overrun with words.
Moore, who serves as The Bush School's Director of Diversity, then asked the group to break into twos and threes, calling on participants to discuss the sources behind their images of a nigger. He advised them, however, that the process should focus on honesty, not on feeling good. "This is not going to be a Kumbaya session," he said, to a smattering of nervous laughter.
Five minutes ticked by, the room abuzz with conversation. Then Wiley invited participants to share their conversations. Throughout the crowd -- a mix of Black, white, and Asian, native-born and immigrant, student and parent, old and young -- hands lifted into the air.
A white woman said her uncle had used nigger to denigrate the Black people whom he felt had stolen job opportunities. "So when I hear the words in the halls where I teach," she said, "I cringe."
A Black woman, dreadlocks stuffed into a hat, recalled that in Arkansas, where she grew up, white people greeted Black people with the word: "Hi, nigger. How you doing?" Blacks, in turn, were to reply to those white people with a salutation of "Mr." or "Miss," she said. And if they didn't? "That was call for retaliation," she said.
After hearing others discuss how nigger can be used as an assault by some, but a term of endearment by others, particularly young Black people, a white man acknowledged he felt conflicted. Some days, he found himself tolerant of young people who used nigger; other days, its use upset him. "I don't have an answer," he admitted.
In reflecting on the word's historical prominence, Wiley estimated that in Mark Twain's classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, nigger recurs 223 times. (The actual number is 215.)
Igniting a new fuse, Moore led the group through a call-and-response. "I--am--a--nigger." "You--are--a--nigger." "We--are--niggers." Some people squirmed. Others kept their jaws clenched. "How does it feel to say it, to hear it?" Moore asked.
Standing up, a white man said he was troubled by the act of saying nigger. "It was like pulling the pin out of a hand grenade," he said. "Nothing good is going to come from this."
A man from Ghana, who moved to the U.S. in 1976, said that he'd never used the word, but had faced it once, in Everett. There, he said, he'd missed his bus and as he tried to get a ride from drivers passing by, one yelled from a car window, "Hey -- they used the "N" word -- get a horse," he said. But, he ventured, perhaps repeating the word, as in the call-and-response, might weaken its power. "Maybe the word may die," he suggested.
Last July in Detroit, the NAACP attempted to lay the word to rest, holding a mock funeral to bury the "N-word." That ceremony was part of the organization's efforts to stop demeaning images of Blacks in the media.
In response to the Ghanaian man, Wiley recounted a story illustrating the word's strength. He recalled that when his son was 6, he'd mentioned a school bully had called him blockhead and fat head. When Wiley advised his son to speak up to the bully, he said he could tell something else troubled the 6 year old. Wiley asked what it was; his son confessed a fifth grader called him nigger. "You can't imagine the pain of having your son's innocence taken away," Wiley said.
By this point, the two-hour mark had been reached. Did people want to stay or go? Moore asked. Everyone remained seated.
More conflicted emotions were expressed, from a woman who said the term is "personal" for Blacks, while "external" for whites, to an English teacher who witnessed her all-white class struggle to contextualize the word nigger in Huck Finn. By the evening's end, no clear answer on the use of nigger was reached, though participants were prodded to connect with others of different races, to create relationships that could defuse the word's volatility.
Speaking after the forum, Moore said it's important to stop people from saying the "'N' word. But what's more important, is challenging everyone to get rid of the picture."