Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Word Fatal To Writers


In the hands of good writers, words can be equivalent to a .44 magnum in a coat pocket. Violence, jealousy, grudges, and more spew onto the page and arouse tension, sympathy, and fear. Words have the potential to blow the reader away. They can bring tears. They can make us hate.

Nigger jumps off the page to scare the daylights out of agents and publishers. It’s like a scourge to anything written. Historical fiction writers such as myself have wrestled with alternatives. However, in the 19th Century, the word effortlessly rolled off the tongues of blacks and whites in the antebellum South. The classy variant was nigra. Blacks were called Africans if they spoke little or no English. However, no plantation owner, slave, white or black person would have ever heard the term African American. What’s a writer to do?

Before you jump to the conclusion that anything is better than nigger, take a look at a slave narrative that has been cleansed of the word. It reads like a 20th Century editor’s account of slavery. Who can have confidence in a slave speaking in an office highrise in some city with planes flying overhead?

Perhaps this word is so vilified because African Americans want to forget their slave history. I hope this isn’t so. Their forefathers deserve better. Courageous slaves endured for black Americans. Many heroes speak in the slave narratives. Their sacrifices deserve recognition if not appreciation.

We give words their power. Simply a sound can bring laughter or tears. What value for such an ephemeral entity! You can see the obvious value/quality of stove, house, bucket or bullet. But what is the value of words such as nice job? You could get fired for nice job if it is spoken facetiously.

Words aren’t transparent. We continuously try to read the intent behind them. The more obscure the intent the greater we worry about the accuracy of our interpretation. This interplay of inference versus literal-meaning causes many a plot to thicken.

When whites get over their arrogance and disrespect for African Americans, and when blacks get over their feelings of worthlessness and deprivation, perhaps the word nigger will lose some of its impact. In the meantime, it’s still a bombshell, this sound that is nothing in and of itself. Nobody likes it. Nobody wants to touch it. And we antebellum writers are left to deal with the devil.

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