Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Paula Deen and the 'N' word

Yesterday the woman who cleans for me said, "Isn't that just awful what they're doing to poor Paula Deen?"

I replied, "Actually, I think she got what she had coming," which sort of shut down conversation for awhile.

I realize that a lot of people leaping to "poor Paula Dean"'s defense haven't read much about her situation, and think the only reason she's losing endorsements and her job with the Food Network is because she said the 'N' word once thirty years ago.  Unfortunately, she seems guilty of a whole lot more.  The "poor Paula Deen" conversation reflects badly on how most of us white people view racism in our society today--but Kristen Howerton, who blogs over at Rage Against the Minivan, discussed that in detail yesterday, quite a bit better than I can.  Here.  I encourage you to read it and think about it.

I'd like to talk about the N word.  It's a word I happen to have thought about a lot, mostly because I spent four years researching and writing a book called Jefferson's Sons, which is about the last 20 years of Thomas Jefferson's life as told through the eyes of his children with Sally Hemmings, a slave.  The book takes place between 1805 and 1826 and is absolutely as historically accurate as I can make it, with two exceptions:  I never attempt to write in dialect, and I don't use the N word.

I don't write in dialogue because I dislike reading dialect.  I also feel it's very difficult to do it well, and extremely difficult to use it in the sort of situation I had in Jefferson's Sons.  As my fellow writer John Rocco said when I described the book to him, "But these were real people.  How do you get away with that?"  If I'm using dialect, I'm forced to make all sorts of assumptions about how everyone spoke that I really don't know.  For instance, we do know that grammar was more fluid, especially in speech, in the colonial era--but when I tried to write accurate colonial dialogue in a previous, wholly fiction-based book, (Weaver's Daughter) my editor axed it on the grounds that we couldn't expect modern children to understand that this was probably how everyone spoke back then.  To modern children my characters sounded like illiterate hicks.  Thomas Jefferson was known to be an eloquent writer but a poor public speaker:  would he have sounded vastly more educated than Sally Hemmings, who was raised from earliest childhood inside his house, as the companion of his daughter?  Probably not.  Would Sally Hemmings, who primed her children from birth to understand that they would someday "pass" for white, have tolerated poor speech from them?  Probably not.  But who really knows?  Not me.  That whole "slave dialect" thing--was it real, or was it the product of Margaret Mitchell and her ilk? 

You can see why I left that alone. 

The N word is a whole nother kettle of fish.  It was absolutely historically accurate--it was used, along with several other offensive terms, to describe Jefferson's purported liason with Hemmings back as early as 1801.  (A hundred years later, in 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to a private meal in the White House, the next day's New York Times headline was, "President Dines a Nigger."  The headline.  Look it up if you don't believe me.)  But I couldn't use it. 

I'm a white woman.  I find the word abhorrent. I write fiction for middle-schoolers.  The suggested reading range for Jefferson's Sons is grades 5-8.  If I put it into my book, even on a strictly historical basis, I would be in some sense condoning the use of the word.  Sure, I could say, this is strictly historical--but would the ten-year-old reading the story understand that?  Would the ten-year-old white boy realize that while it was common in 1805, it was completely unacceptable now?  Would the ten-year-old black girl feel marginalized? 

Would the school system teaching these 10-year-olds refuse to use the book?  Oh, yes.  Trust me on that one. 

It might be that if I were black I would have the nuanced understanding and the credentials to feel comfortable using the N word.  But I'm not.  The end.

One of the most interesting parts of the Rage Against the Minivan essay concerned white people complaining that black people got to use the N-word when white people didn't.  The response was, Do you want to use the N-word?  Why?  If not, why are you complaining?

Race is a complicated subject, but I don't feel sorry for Paula Deen.  She's not lost her freedom or her health or anything but money from companies who are looking at her and saying, you know, racists aren't really the best representatives for our products.  Bye.  With any luck, this will lead to less racists, or at least racists who think hard before organizing a "plantation" wedding featuring only black servers, or who allow their employees to be bullied based on race, or who ever use the N-word, even once, thirty years from now.