David Snead vs. Legendary Playwright August Wilson


Lord, have mercy, here we go again.

In the good name of stopping the spread of hate, someone is spreading a bad disease called censorship.

Story continues below.

As if our cherished First Amendment wasn’t facing enough of a threat from the radical right — what with the National Portrait Gallery mess weighing on our minds — now we have a superintendent of schools in Waterbury, Connecticut, deciding on society’s behalf that a school production of August Wilson’s play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, should be shut down because Wilson’s characters use the “N” word. This, despite all evidence to indicate that the teacher directing the play had clued in, educated and received support from the students, the parents, the hierarchy of the public education system and even such civic leaders as a former president of the local N.A.A.C.P. As the New York Times reports.

The superintendent’s name is David Snead. His picture is above. Here is his bio.

Coming on the heels of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn being — well, the only word is sanitized, with all of Twain’s uses of the “N” word replaced by the word “slave, a miscarriage of literary justice that shocks the mind — this is galling. Just galling.

As the Times reported, Snead said:

…educators should not do anything that might encourage people to use the word. “The use of the N-word is something all civil rights leaders around the country want us to stop using.”…

The school, meanwhile…

…had explored the possibility of substituting another word but that the rights-holders to the play would not allow alterations…

And then there’s this:

The director of Waterbury’s Joe Turner, Nina A. Smith, a theater arts teacher at the magnet school, said in a telephone interview on Thursday that she had taken precautions to ensure that the play and its moments of offensive language are understood in context and viewed as a learning experience. She prepared a study guide for classes to talk about the play, and was organizing post-performance talkbacks so the cast and audience members could discuss the work. She also opened rehearsals to the parents of the cast and crew.

Ms. Smith said that she had reviewed the play not only with the actors’ parents and the school principal – who, she said, approved it after some initial misgivings – but also with school district supervisors for arts and language arts, as well as a former president of the Waterbury N.A.A.C.P. The language arts supervisor was concerned that students would be saying “nigger” in the play, and it went up the bureaucratic chain, with some educators approving the production and some expressing concerns, Ms. Smith said.

Obviously I am not African American and there is perhaps a strong argument to be made that I have less of a right to combat Snead’s objection than, say, an African American might. I’m not a generation that considers the “N” word to be appropriate discourse any situation, public or private, professional or personal, and I don’t use it.

But how do we educate our children about the history of language, the history of ethnic slurs in language, and all the weight it carries, if we keep children ignorant about it?

And who is Snead to decide that the work August Wilson — who isn’t alive to defend himself and thus cannot debate the use of the “N” word in the play (which is set in the 1910s) — shouldn’t be performed or seen by the youth of Waterbury? How do we stamp out racism if we don’t enlighten our children to its existence? What empirical evidence is there that you can sensitize Americans to the power of language by stamping it out? Isn’t that what President Obama’s oration in Tucson the other day was all about?

Snead is doing his community a terrible disservice. And given the hoops this teacher and her principal went through in order to guide, educate and incorporate the community and its concerns, he should reverse himself with alacrity and ensure that the school board, next week, endorses the production.

Anything less than that sends a signal to the people of Waterbury — and to the people of the nation — that freedom of speech is approximately three-fifths as important to the fabric of our nation as it used to be.

  • jen

    dont people understand that using an “offensive” word takes away its power?

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  • Obviously I am not African American and there is perhaps a strong argument to be made that I have less of a right to combat Snead’s objection than, say, an African American might.

    That’s fair but as a Jew who cares about both history and theatre (and I presume you feel similarly) I think we can draw a parallel by saying that we don’t want to prevent productions of The Merchant of Venice or The Jew of Malta but rather use productions to educate people about the anti-Jewish bigotry that inspired these representations.

    Obviously there are going to be Jews who disagree with such a proposition

    • Oh, I agree, Ian. I just wanted to allow for the possibility (as you did) that not everyone may agree on this topic. I think your comparison is spot-on.

  • Sherry Shephard-Massat

    Wow. First Huck Finn and now this. Taking in consideration, though, all of the preparation and work done before hand to make sure that parents and students alike understood the time and place of the play, I’m wondering why the teacher even chose this piece to perform. Seems to me that the entire experience up to this point, shut down and all, has become an extensive learning experience in itself especially for the students. You could read it fifteen different ways and still come up with commentary on our society.

  • tracked back to your piece from my blog. nice discussion!

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  • This so sad. A blow not only against arts and education, but (if you ask me) also against civil rights. As you said, “How do we educate our children about the history of language, the history of ethnic slurs in language, and all the weight it carries, if we keep children ignorant about it?” And I agree with a previous poster as well: to treat a word fearfully is only to give it more power. Is there anything we can do to help this production go on?

  • Reuben J

    Growing up in suburbs St. Louis in the 80’s reading Huckleberry Finn, and the use of the N word only further elevated the feelings of the school district saying to me (apart from the unequal racial policy treatment I saw at the school) that I did not belong; “less than”, “stupid”, “you don’t belong” that is how the word originally used. However, amongst those using it within that disenfranchised group it is often used as an inclusive, “you do belong”, “you are one of us”,an informal way groups joke or communicate with each other. I say this because African Americans aren’t the only group (gays, women,. .) that have reclaimed a phrase and use amongst themselves, but mean other things when others outside of the group use it.
    My feeling is that Mr. Snead is trying to make some kind of political point and not one that is of a populist or inclusive nature. His reasoning even rings hollow in the explanation in light of the precautions and agreement of parents, NAACP, teachers, etc. I find it disingenuous.

  • Steven Snead

    This is a bunch of theoretical rhetorical argumentation for the sake of argumentation. Kids shouldn’t be using the word in school sanctioned productions. Period. That’s it. Snead is not trying to find consensus among the groups who signed off on it. He is trying to mold consensus. That is true leadership. And yes, he is a relation.

    • It’s not theoretical that your relation is attacking the First Amendment. That’s not leadership, sir. That’s cowardice.

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  • I would also add that understanding the word in its dramatic and historic context would make the students far less likely to use it in casual speech because they will understand the full connotation.

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