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In the essay “The Meanings of the Word,” Gloria Naylor discusses the essence of the word ‘nigger’ and how it can mean many different things to different people in an endless list of situations. Depending on the individuals race, social status, gender, and age Naylor outlines how a word such as ‘nigger’ can have different meanings within one’s own environment. Naylor discusses how one word can go from having a positive to a negative effect merely due to how it is spoken and by whom. Naylor shares a personal experience with her readers as she describes the very first time she really “heard” the word ‘nigger’. A young white boy in her third grade class spit in her face. Naylor states, “I didn’t know what a nigger was, but I knew that whatever it meant, it was something he shouldn’t have called me.” (Naylor 109)
Naylor writes about her own personal experiences clearly showing she is prejudice about how and when the word is acceptable. Even though her experiences are powerful, they can also be seen as a limited view of the subject. Her readers can only understand the situation through her eyes and her experiences. Naylor is trying to educate her readers by sharing her personal experiences. I think she wants her readers to sit and think about the words they use, how others may use them, and how those words affect others around them. Naylor wants her readers to understand how deeply she was affected by a young boy but also by how she didn’t really think about the word ‘nigger’ until the moment is was used in a hurtful manner towards her. Her main objective is to make her readers think about the words they choose to use and hear and how the context of these words is embedded in can change the meaning of them.
To be a part of Naylor’s target audience one must have had experience with language and how people use it. She is targeting those who have heard or used the word ‘nigger’ before. Naylor wants her readers to take on her experience and be empathetic towards her feelings. She does not do this in a pathetic way, as Naylor seeks no pity from anyone. She outlines in detail her experience and wants her readers to understand her views and how they came to be. Naylor assumes the role of a teacher in her writing. She assumes a person of a young girl experiencing a new way of understanding a word. Naylor wants her readers to understand how important the context in which one word is used, so she writes about her own personal experience, of which she is the sole authority. Naylor assumes a straight forward tone in her writing. She does not demand or point her fingers at any one group of people. She simply relays her experience in such a way that you can’t help but to think about what it must have been like for her as a young girl experiencing a new meaning of a word in such a racial way. She does not take on a superior or subordinate tone; rather it is like she is having a conversation with her readers as her peers. I find this very powerful because she achieves what she wants is a very subtle manner. Naylor does not lecture or blame anyone; she is simply sharing her experiences.
The introduction of “The Meanings of a Word,” is a frame for the rest of the writing to fill. Naylor discusses how language is the subject of her writing, and although the written word is what has kept her going throughout her life she still feels that the written word is inferior to the spoken word. Her arguments in the introduction of her writing are clear and easily understood. She is portraying just how powerful she feels the spoken word can be. Naylor states, “Dialogue achieves its power in the dynamics of a fleeting moment of sight, sound, smell and touch.” (Naylor 108) This helps the readers understand the power of a spoken word such as ‘nigger’. Naylor’s position is that words either written or spoken do not take on meaning until a consensus assigns one. Naylor states, “Words themselves are innocuous; it is the consensus that gives them true power.” (Naylor 109) As a writer Naylor feels that the spoken word has a greater impact than the written word by stating, “â€¦much of the frustration experienced by novelists in the awareness that whatever we manage to capture in even the most transcendent passages falls far short of the richness of life.” (Naylor 108) She introduces her readers to just how powerful the spoken word can be which is what the rest of the piece emphasizes. Naylor uses chronological organization in writing “The Meanings of a Word.” She starts with a childhood experience and then transitions into how her thoughts on the word ‘nigger’ evolved into what they are today.
In her conclusion Naylor sums her point of view up nicely. She wants to bring awareness to how words can take on different meanings depending on how, when and by whom they are used. She gives an example of how one word can take on an entirely new meaning and the fact that one may not really hear a word or take notice of it until it takes on that new meaning by stating, “There must have been dozens of times that the word ‘nigger’ was spoken in front of me before I reached third grade. But I didn’t “hear” it until it was said by a small pair of lips that had already learned it could be a way to humiliate me.” (Naylor 111) Naylor creates a conversational atmosphere where she puts her ideas together nicely in chronological order. She seems to develop a smooth relationship between her ideas in this way. Naylor uses personal experiences as her evidence. She uses conversational a tone that goes together nicely with the readers. My reason for saying this is because Naylor draws her readers in and they can easily understand and accept her experiences. Naylor uses her experiences to serve as an example and to offer credibility. The readers are drawn in by her experiences as a young girl, and her evolution of understanding. Naylor makes her readers think about what it would be like to really “hear” a word for the very first time, to look back and realize you had heard the word many times in a different context. The language used by Naylor is commonly used. She does not use big words that people do not understand or have to search for in the dictionary. She writes in a low style that is effective for her argument. This use of language brings to mind a seemingly friendly relationship with her readers, like she is sitting down with you sipping on a cup of tea discussing how context can change your understanding of a word. She is sharing a vital part of her life and experiences with the readers in order to make you aware and understand her argument.
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