English department responds to use of N-word in class

Moss Brennan and Justin Lundy

While quoting “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” Kristina Groover read out the N-word in full in her African American Literature class which caused one of her students to become uncomfortable.  

On Feb. 15, The Appalachian published a Letter to the Editor from the Director of Diversity and Inclusion for the Student Government Association, Jay Edwards. In the letter, Edwards said he spoke to her about the use of the N-word and how it made him uncomfortable. 

He wrote that he believed they had come to an understanding, but she continued to read it aloud in full during class. 

On Feb. 24, The Appalachian published a Letter to the Editor from Chair of the Department of English, Leonardo Flores, addressing Edwards’ letter.

“We discussed this incident in our department meeting last Friday, and genuinely regret Mr. Edwards’ pain and that of any other student resulting from this or any other content in our courses,” Flores wrote. “We are also concerned by how this situation has affected Dr. Groover, because she is a respected colleague with a passion for African American literature and a history of activism for social and racial justice.” 

He continued to write, “We recognize that neither our academic privilege nor our past actions make us impervious to the serious, painful, and complex history surrounding racist language.”

Edwards said it was disheartening to see the English department paint her in a positive light and used her past accomplishments “to justify her actions.”

“That means nothing to me because she still did what she did,” Edwards said in response to the LTE. “You could tell the statement was worried about protecting the interests of the professor and the university over protecting the interests of the students.”

He also said he didn’t believe the letter from Flores fixed anything. 

Flores wrote that the department wrote its Diversity Statement “with significant leadership of Dr. Groover.”

“They did not talk about how her actions were bad,” Edwards said. “They basically just said she’s a good person.” 

Groover declined to comment at this time and directed The Appalachian to Flores. 

At the end of his letter, Flores wrote: “I ask for patience so we can have the conversations necessary to address this situation as best we can. And while we’re doing so, I ask us to be generous as a community in the ways we interpret people’s motivations and actions, so we can continue to work in good faith toward a positive resolution.”

Megan Hayes, chief communications officer, said all students taking the course in question were offered alternative options for continuing it. 

App State has guidelines for student grievances that include attempting to resolve the matter with the person directly, submit a complaint to the person’s immediate supervisor and if the person is still not satisfied with the resolution, they file to the next level supervisor. The full step-by-step recommendations can be found here

“Following process is important. It is also very important to recognize this is a matter that has the potential to become broadly divisive, yet, more importantly, offers opportunities for facilitating difficult conversations and finding constructive outcomes. So, a principal priority right now is to build trust where trust has been eroded. There are many conversations taking place with that goal at the heart,” Hayes said. 

Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, said a professor being protected under the First Amendment would boil down to whether the use of the N-word was relevant to the subject matter. 

“To the extent that she may have been quoting from a work of or about African American literature in a class about African American literature, it would seem — at least at first glance — to be germane to the subject matter, as compared to being gratuitous or unrelated,” Calvert said. “That does not mean, however, that the use of that word is morally, culturally or socially appropriate, even though it might be legally permissible.”

Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to current and contemporary issues affecting the First Amendment’s freedoms of speech, press, thought, assembly and petition.

Hayes said Chancellor Sheri Everts, Chief Diversity Officer Willie Fleming and English department Chair Leonardo Flores are “deeply engaged” in the situation along with other administrators from Academic Affairs and Student Affairs. 

“At the department level, discussions are taking place about pedagogy, and fostering collaborative and inclusive settings for learning. This work is profoundly complicated, difficult, and layered with power dynamics and personal and professional identities including those of race and generation,” Hayes said. “There are no easy answers, but there are many people who have reached out to members of the administration offering their willingness to be a part of ensuring Appalachian is a welcoming campus that values inclusive excellence – a foundational principle of academic freedom.”

This is an ongoing story that will require more reporting as it develops.