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  • Public Readings and the N-word, or What If Your Fiction Contains Historically Appropriate Racial...
Public Readings and the N-word, or What If Your Fiction Contains Historically Appropriate Racial Slurs?
Written by
Sakki selznick
February 2016
Written by
Sakki selznick
February 2016

I had very little time to prepare for my second ever reading, which I learned of only on the morning of a busy day. Since my printer is busted, I had a friend print a section of the novel I am just now querying, and headed to the event. The Color of Safety covers a century and has multiple story lines. I chose a section from one that follows a light-skinned African-American protagonist and his red-haired, Jewish fellow-volunteer during 1964's freedom summer, when students from both north and south headed into the heart of Jim Crow terrorist country to teach civics and help Negroes (as they were called then) register for the vote. It wasn't until I sat in the auditorium editing the pages, that I realized that this section contained enough racial slurs to choke any person of color--or white liberal--who might happen to be in the audience.

These weren't my slurs. They were those of Klansmen outside the boys' window. And they're certainly not the only racial or religious slurs in the novel. When you're writing about race, class and bigotry over the Twentieth Century, there is no honest way to avoid typing many, many racial slurs. The world was full of them. African-Americans were blatantly stereotyped in almost any main stream film before the 1950's. Comedy routines were often based on racial and ethnic stereotypes. Heroes in novels of that era often described as "the Anglo-Saxon ideal."

1942's Holiday Inn, Bing Crosby et all in "pickinninny blackface." (Except for the actual black members of the cast.)

Early Vaudeville Marx Brother

Routine mocking various ethnicities in "Fun in Hi Skule" includes German Herr Teacher, Izzy, the "Hebrew Boy," and rural Irish "Patsy Brannigan."

Bert Williams, a huge star on Broadway in the early part of the 20th Century. A light-skinned black man, he often played roles in blackface. Throughout the last century, the line between ethnicity and race has moved steadily whiteward. If you look at census records from the earlier part of the 20th Century, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Greece and Eastern Europe it's clear that all were once considered "racially" different from Anglo-Saxons and Northern Europeans, although over the twentieth century, they gradually have been brought into the status quo, just as Latinos are now being allowed to join. Members of religions once shunned--Catholics, Jews, Mormons--can even run for office without national frantic outbursts of contempt for their faith. Of course, bigotry against these groups still exists. And bigotry against African-Americans still runs rampant, as anyone witnessing the contempt repeatedly expressed for Obama--a sitting President-- can attest.

But to write an historical novel and not have people think and speak in a bigoted mindset is to whitewash history. (Pun absolutely intended.) Still, as I stood there in front of the (small) audience, I had to take a deep breath. Every N word, every "Boy" and worse uttered by a Klansman, made me mentally wince. I also flinched inwardly every time my young light-skinned protagonist expressed the naive notion that he must "teach the impoverished adults of this rural Mississippi community to be brave." Afterwards, I asked my audience if they understood the irony of his ignorance, the huge risk the Negro elders took even to attend a Freedom School, even to speak to Northerners, outsiders, the courage it took to ask to register to vote knowing that just asking the question could and often was a death sentence.

I was so relieved to find that the audience understood what I was doing. That they came on the journey with my characters. One man said he had just finished reading a book about Freedom Summer and that I had channeled it "brilliantly." (Well, he did say that.) We must have the courage to write history the way it really was, to tell of humans the way we really are. That was the first time. I hope it will get easier. It matters.

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