The Adventures of a Vaccinium Person From Finland
By J.T. Ryder
When my middle son was in 5th grade, he was harassed mercilessly by several black students in his class, one of whom would pull his hair and call him things like beaner, spic and towel-head. I had spoken with the teacher on many occasions and, while sympathetic, he was overrun by his classroom and was alone in dealing with the problem.
One day, I received a call saying that my son was being suspended for two weeks. Why? Because my son had finally had enough, hitting the boy and calling him the N-word. Oddly enough, the physicality of the altercation was swept aside, but the racial slur was treated as a major transgression. I arrived at the school and met with the principal, who moved a table out of the way so that “there wouldn’t be anything standing between us.” Knowing that my wife was coming up, I thought that this was a foolish idea, as that table would at least buy the principal a few seconds for escape. In speaking with the principal, I brought up harassment, running down the list of racial slurs. She stated that since he was not of the ethnicity, the racial slurs did not apply to him.
Now, look up at my picture. I am a white male. My wife, however, happens to be a black female, making our children multiracial, which makes this incident a little bit convoluted. I brought up the fact that the school had a zero tolerance policy for racism, yet they had allowed my son to be slurred. She repeated her stance that since he was not of those ethnic origins, the racist epithets did not apply. I countered that I had heard children in the hallway call each other the N-word on innumerable occasions. She explained that in the African-American culture, that was a term of greeting and endearment. Well, what if, for the sake of argument, the black half of my son used the word, trying to be endearing, while the white half was appalled at the racist transaction? Would that make it acceptable? Shortly thereafter, my wife arrived and the whole conversation devolved rather quickly. As I predicted, the principal should have kept that table in front of her.
I bring this up, not as a means to air my disgruntlement with the school system (although there is a cathartic quality to it), but to illustrate the complications of this argument. The word is used heavily in a lot of urban music. In public, the dreaded N-word is used with a complete disregard of anyone within earshot. It’s become such a game, much like the one played by women who wear exceptionally revealing clothes, just daring any male to look at them so they can unleash a hate filled tirade against the “sexist pigs.” It becomes a trap as to who has licensure to use the word and who does not.
As with any other word, it is the intent behind the word and not the word itself that carries the weight. I can watch Richard Pryor and never have a derogatory thought about the use of the N-word. If I watch “Mississippi Burning” and hear some white redneck use it, you can feel the hatred drip off of each syllable. He could be calling the guy a “maraschino cherry” and the sense of malice would be the same. By the same token, any word, regardless of how innocuous or funny it may sound (such as peckerwood, which just cracks me up), should be treated equally as a pejorative term and not be relegated as having a lesser impact. You cannot claim a specific sensitivity to a word, and then be insensitive about the language that flows from your own mouth.
The argument against removing the N-word from Mark Twain’s works is simple: don’t. It reflects the mores of that time period. It shows how people were viewed and treated, and not just black people, but Native Americans and different classes of people as well. If you start sanitizing works of literature, how soon will it be before we rewrite “The Dairy of Anne Frank” to depict the young girl taunting the Nazis à la Macaulay Culkin in “Home Alone” so that we don’t have to deal with the horrific nature of the Holocaust. We can change Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” to depict handicapped people in a better light. After we’re done with that, we’ll be able to tackle that violently racist and sexist book, The Bible …
I am not downplaying the power of the word. In its truest form, the word embodies the hatred and detestation of one race for another. It unfairly depicts a whole race of people under an inapplicable blanket definition and, to a large degree, holds them to it against their will. That’s one of the important reasons to keep the word in its original context in “Huckleberry Finn” – as a benchmark for what the word implied in a certain era and what the word symbolizes now.
A word, however, is a word and, even if you sanitize it and give it a more palatable appearance, unless you are willing to change the behavior that allows the hateful intent behind the word, this cleansing is all for naught. To tamper with literary works in the name of appeasement or comfort is yet just another form of revisionist history, allowing for a Pollyanna perspective that will surely allow us to forget past transgressions … and eventually to repeat them.
DCP freelance writer J.T. Ryder covers a wide range of topics including local news, music and comedy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.