To mock a killing wordWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
Unless I am hired to transcribe “The Collected Works of Lil’ Wayne,” there is no circumstance in which I can conceive uttering or writing the racial slur that is represented by “the n-word.”
I toss around curse words as casually as Lady Gaga shows her underwear, but the n-word is in a separate category of epithets. Its intrinsic ugliness defines its taboo, and not even the bewilderingly popular “ga” ending changes that.
Your choice to use the n-word opens you to some reflexive judgments, but you do have the choice to use it. Depending on the context, you push the boundaries from free speech to hate speech, but that’s for you to live with. And while there’s no context for the word that I find defensible, there are contexts that I will defend.
The Zane Trace Players, a theater group at Morgan High School in McConnelsville, Ohio, planned to perform the stage version of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was adapted by Christopher Sergel. The play was canceled recently by the school’s superintendent.
According to reporter Kathy Thompson, “Lori Snyder-Lowe, superintendent for Morgan Local School District, said she received calls from parents concerned about the play because it contains a racial slur.”
Snyder-Lowe reportedly offered to allow the play to be performed if the n-word were removed.
Bruce Revennaugh of the Zane Trace Players said he contacted the play’s publisher to seek permission to change the script, but was told no. As Thompson reported, “The company receives requests every once in a while to remove the word, said Sergel, but making someone uncomfortable is not a sufficient reason to change a vital piece of American literature. ‘Being uncomfortable with history is not means to change it,’ Sergel said. ‘We’ve always denied these requests. People need to figure out how to confront issues’.”
All praise to Sergel for passing on the paycheck to maintain the integrity of Lee’s message. This puts him in opposition to people who would publish altered versions of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or trample on other works of art based on their own sensibilities.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the most affecting, enlightening and human books in American literature. The book thrums with an energy of purpose and compassion that can make the spirit soar with joy on one page and kick it to the depths of despair on the next. No American education is complete without experiencing the tale of young Scout Finch’s encounter with Alabama racism during the Great Depression.
As Scout’s father Atticus defends Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, Lee explores the hot-button themes largely through 6-year-old Scout’s eyes. One of the book’s most resonant passages comes when Scout asks her father about a slur she is hearing at school:
“Scout,” said Atticus, “nigger-lover is just one of those terms that don’t mean anything — like snot-nose. It’s hard to explain — ignorant, trashy people use it when they think somebody’s favoring Negroes over and above themselves. It’s slipped into usage with some people like ourselves, when they want a common, ugly term to label somebody.”
“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”
“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody … I’m hard put, sometimes — baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”
It stuns and scares me that someone could read that passage and want to ban or censor “To Kill a Mockingbird” based on claims of racism.
It is important to address the sensitivities of modern audiences, but that has to be balanced with the historical and educational opportunities on a case-by-case basis.
What of a brilliant song like Randy Newman’s “Rednecks,” a scathing, acidic attack on racism that is sung from the point of view of the racist? A censor would have to keep his hand on the button and work hard to keep up with Newman in the song, which employs the n-word close to 10 times.
“We got no-necked oilmen from Texas
And good ol’ boys from Tennessee
And college men from LSU
Went in dumb. Come out dumb too
Hustlin’ ‘round Atlanta in their alligator shoes
Gettin’ drunk every weekend at the barbecues
And they’re keepin’ the niggers down.
Down here we’re too ignorant to realize
That the North has set the nigger free
Yes he’s free to be put in a cage
In Harlem in New York City
And he’s free to be put in a cage on the South-Side of Chicago
And the West-Side
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
And he’s free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston … ”
There’s a novel’s worth of criticism, conversation and education in Newman’s song (and those are just half the lyrics); to me, it’s worth the shock of hearing the word for the devastating indictment of racism the song delivers.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” Atticus tells Scout.
That holds true no matter what color that skin is, or what vile name you call the person who wears it.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.