Campus Life Editor
Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage spoke at Common Hour Thursday and shared writing from unpublished autobiographical pieces. Until now, Nottage has written fictitious plays, often focused on strong female characters and social issues for which she advocates change.
Nottage said her education at Yale University’s School of Drama and her time spent working for Amnesty International helped her build the foundation on which she focuses the themes of her writing.
The first excerpt Nottage read was from a piece focusing on her childhood, in the context of racism she faced as an African-American girl growing up in Brooklyn during the 1970s. She began her story in a place where it seems she would be unlikely to face racism — on a trip to Rwanda.
“A couple years ago, someone asked me when was the last time I was called a nigger?” Nottage read from her memoir. “It was a couple summers ago. I was on an early morning walk [in Rwanda]. I found myself face-to-face with a group of teenagers. Upon seeing me, in unison, they shouted ‘nigger, nigger!’ I turned in surprise because I wasn’t sure I heard it correctly. They repeated it more loudly and clearly and burst out into laughter. I was caught off guard by the assault and more than a little confused. These tall, black boys in the middle of Africa had just called me a nigger.”
Because the incident was so unexpected and incongruous, Nottage did not know how to respond. She said at first she wanted to laugh at the irony, but then she became angry at how carelessly the boys had insulted her with a word that has such a terrible history in the U.S.
“I began thinking about all the other times I had been called the n-word,” Nottage said. “When I was growing up, my father’s side used the word very liberally; it was their absolute favorite word. It took on different meanings, depending on the inflection. It could be a term of endearment or an insult.”
Nottage explained her Uncle Willie used the term as a form of endearment for her and her brother while they were children.
“He was the first person to introduce me to the n-word.” Nottage said. “He used to affectionately call me and my brother ‘nigglets, my little nigglets.’ I asked him what that meant, and he said ‘little nigger.’ I asked him what a nigger was, and he said ‘us.’”
Nottage’s uncle told her she would be called that word throughout her life — often by people, who, unlike him, were not using it as a term of endearment — so she should become used to being called it. Nottage described the first time she was called the word by a stranger while she was at a camp in the Pocono Mountains during the summer of 1974.
“I was standing in line at a candy store, when an older white girl behind me in line began talking about O.J. Simpson,” Nottage said. “Someone turned to her and said, ‘Who’s O.J. Simpson?’ And the girl pointed a finger at me, and said, ‘He’s a nigger like her.’ I drew in a deep breath, stood proudly, and said, ‘I’m not a nigger, I’m a nigglet.’ I was only quoting my uncle, but I understood the way she wielded the word was far more potent and dangerous than my uncle had let on.”
Because the neighborhood Nottage lived in as a child was predominantly black, it served as a buffer between her daily life and the racism of the outside world.
Two years later, Nottage was confronted with racism again. Another of her uncles had successfully fought to have a ski lodge in New Jersey desegregated, and he took Nottage and her brother along on his first trip there to ski. The day began without incident, until she and her family stopped at the top of a mountain while skiing to enjoy the view.
“We barely noticed two white men traveling up the ski lift pointing and laughing at us,” Nottage said. “And when they were just above our heads, it came. The word. ‘Niggers!’ they shouted. And I gasped, and then I thrust my right arm in the air, my middle finger in a powerful ‘fuck you’ as they passed. But then I realized they couldn’t see my finger because I was wearing a mitten.”
Nottage’s anecdotes show how she found ways to cope with the racism she encountered, and how she succeeded in defying it.
In addition, Nottage read an excerpt from another autobiographical story, called “Pilgrims.” In the story, she describes a huge tree wrapped in ivy leaves that grew in the backyard of her childhood home in Brooklyn. Every year, thousands of Monarch butterflies rested at the tree for a few days while on their annual migration. Father Michael Judge, who had lived in the house as a child, would also come to her house annually and ask to see the ivy, which was planted by his mother.
“We welcomed both the butterflies and the priest as strange anomalies,” Nottage said. “Then the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 happened, and Father Judge was the very first casualty of the attacks. And the attacks suddenly became very personal.”
Exactly one year after the Sept. 11 attacks, the tree fell down. That marked the first year neither Judge nor the butterflies visited the tree.
The next year on Sept. 11, two women came to Nottage’s door and asked if they could see Judge’s ivy. Although Nottage found this odd, she showed them the ivy and let them take home a clipping.
“One woman’s husband had died in 9/11,” Nottage explained. “The following year, my doorbell rang, and two people whose brother died in 9/11 asked for a clipping of ivy. This happened again and again over the years. People are inexplicably drawn to this very magical place. And I keep the ivy as a beacon and a remembrance.”
After Nottage finished her readings, questions from the audience ranged from whether the form or content of writing is more important to her, if her gender or race have been obstacles to her when trying to get her writing published, and if she integrates her family members into the character in her stories.
Although it is clear the adversity Nottage faced has influenced her life, her writing provides a way for her to defy the very racism on which she focuses her writing.
“I realized that that word [nigger], much as it hurt me, couldn’t and wouldn’t stop me from doing the things I loved,” Nottage said.
Questions? Email Julia at email@example.com.