Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Not trying to be offensive here, but...

There are words in the English language that are truly offensive to me. Most "four-letter" curse words certainly are as well as other non-curse words that are just downright crude. I don't like to hear them and I sure don't use them.

Recently I read the classic novel UNCLE TOM'S CABIN. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author, was an abolitionist and wrote the book to give an accurate portrayal of the horrors of slavery in the United States. The book was published in 1852 and many people believe it had a significant role in our country's Civil War.

One thing I noted as I read through the book was Ms. Stowe's use of an offensive word: Nigger. Most everyone I know agrees this is an offensive word. It is a derogatory word. It is a word that should never be used by God-fearing people to describe a person of color. Ms. Stowe understood that. She believed that. But she used that word in her novel to make a point: It was used and used often in the era of slavery. Ms. Stowe, however, only allows her unsavory characters to utter it. An overseer. A slave trader. Those types who did not see a black person as a human being but rather as a thing. I absolutely hated Simon Legree, the man who owned Uncle Tom in the end, and I could absolutely imagine a man like that using that word.

I've read that current publishers are hoping to re-print UNCLE TOM'S CABIN without that word. They are going to sanitize the book so readers will not be offended. I strongly disagree with their line of thinking. Not because I approve of that word, but because we can't change history, no matter how offensive and distasteful we look upon it now. The fact remains that black slaves were called niggers. The fact remains that black people up until this very day are called the "n" word by people who believe themselves better than the blacks. The fact remains that even good-willed people used the term nigger. My dear Grandfather-in-law, who was one of the sweetest men and who was also a preacher, used that term. It's what blacks were called when he was growing up in 1920's Mississippi and he meant no harm or hate when saying it.

I believe that by removing that word, and other offensive words that were common in a certain period, from an historical classic like UNCLE TOM'S CABIN prevents future generations from seeing the stark, naked truth of that time and what the slaves endured. Yes, we can use other language and other words and other actions, but to leave out a word like "nigger" from a book about slavery is not telling the whole truth in my humble opinion.

I am currently reading the book CANE RIVER by Lalita Tademy. Ms. Tademy's ancestors were slaves and this book is a fictional account of the women in her family history. I'm 3/4 of the way finished and I've noticed a few things:

1. Ms. Tademy used the "n" word several times, late in the book. I was under the impression for most of the book that she would not use it, so was surprised when I came across it.
2. She used another derogatory term, "deaf and dumb", to describe the deaf sister many times.
3. She used the term "white trash" to describe an off-screen character.

Each of the above terms are equally offensive if you are the person being described. We all know a deaf person is not dumb, yet that was a common way to describe them in the 1800's and earlier. That would be true of the "n" word too. Their use in historical fiction is not offensive or "lazy writing" as some would say, it's accurate.

Now, before anyone thinks I'm making a stand here in favor of the "n" word, I'm not. At least not as a word that should be used to describe a black person. But as an historical author, I want my stories to be accurate to the period I'm writing. The story I'm currently working on is set on a Texas cotton plantation in 1858. There are slaves. There are overseers and slave traders. Does anyone really believe men in those positions never used the "n" word? No. Do they have to say it every time they speak? No. Would I as an author use that word over and over to get my point across? No. But to completely avoid its usage somehow isn't being honest.

As a reader, I was not offended by the "n" word in UNCLE TOM'S CABIN. I would not be offended if I were to read a novel written today that used that word in a way that shows its ugliness. I would not be offended by other derogatory terms, such as the terms Ms. Tademy used in her book. I don't for a moment believe she sees deaf people as "dumb" but was clearly staying true to the time period she was writing in.

As a Christian, I am called to love my neighbor. I'm called to treat them with love. That goes for the language I use. I would never intentionally offend anyone with a certain word. But history cannot be changed and the truths that are hidden in history often offend. We can learn from that offense and make the world a better place. But to hide from it or pretend it never happened is doing a disservice to us all.


Anita said...

I've never read "Uncle Tom's Cabin." It was one of those books I had always meant to read, but never got around to it. i agree with you. If they reprint it, it should not be changed, but printed exactly the way it was written over a 100 years ago.

Beth said...

Changing those books would be like the people wanting to change the Bible because IT is offensive to some. The Bible shouldn't be changed either---it NEEDS to offend and step on toes.