By Cyrielle Ouedraogo
You know when you open up a dictionary and stumble upon a word that has, tacked onto the end of its phonetic spelling, a small italicized scribble that says “archaic”? Words like “atwarth,” or “cutpurse,” that linger between the pages of Shakespeare plays and haunt the waking hours of college students as they feverishly half-read academic articles. In one way, the word “cutpurse” is a time capsule to Elizabethan England, a time when pockets (i.e. purses) hung from waistbands and were thus easily cut by thieves. It is a factoid that can fade to the back of public consciousness without causing much harm. Of course, no one called for cessation of the usage of the word “cutpurse.” Fashion changed, as fashion does, and we stopped hanging our pockets from our waists. There were no more purses to be cut. The word faded away.
But certain words simply won’t fade.
The word of interest here, is “nigger,” along with all its possible variations. Your eyes may widen a little at my usage of it, they might even glide to the top of the page and try to assess if my name is “black sounding.” Internally, you have already come to the conclusion that I am so painstakingly working up to: you know who is allowed to use this word. But I digress.
In late September of this year at the University of Ottawa a professor uttered the n-word during a lecture. It left students shocked that a white woman could throw around slurs under the guise of academic freedom. The element of this story I am more interested in comes at a later point, after it made headlines and lodged itself in our news cycle. The question that I am trying to answer was brought to my attention by a French professor at 8 o’clock on a Monday morning: “But what about literature?”
It left me stunned. Her question was followed by an explanation, “A lot of old classics employ the n-word. Classics should be taught to children, as should history, and in the scope of teaching we should allow people to utter the word. Do you propose we censor them? Should we alter masterpieces to make them fit for current consumption?” I could think of two answers.
As a black child born in North America, I was born divided. Half of me is the daughter of West African immigrants, the offspring of Yennenga, princess of legend that rode across the desert on a horse whose name was gifted to my clan. That part of me is “ethnic.” It bears my broad nose and darkened skin, and a gifted name that sounds unmistakably black. This part of me believes that centering this debate on the issue of censorship is equating the oppression of the censored to the oppression of black peoples across America. In effect, letting white individuals decide that they should have the right to vocalize slurs in academic settings as they please is returning them the whip and chains.
Some have come forward, feeling censured by this (might I add ongoing) outcry against the word’s usage. To these individuals I ask why they feel wronged. I have seldom seen people proposing that we alter classical works to reflect current thought processes (except in cases where the title contained a slur, see here Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers); we simply ask the word not be uttered aloud. It is possible to teach its effects and repercussions on history by calling it “the n-word.” I promise we will know what you mean.
The second half of me is a child born and raised in Quebec, a girl that is concerned with freedom of speech and the ways in which we preserve history. This part of me believes we should not remove old-timey racist books from the curriculums of schools across the country. In fact, I think these books are instrumental in showing children and young adults alike a part of what we used to be.
The issue comes with that fact that racism is a problem we are still facing, not one we are trying to erase from the past. To me, racism is to the n-word what Elizabethan pockets were to the word cutpurse. Only when the former disappears will we see a cessation of usage of the latter. In the n-word there are millions of black people being shipped across seas and worked to the marrow of their shackled bones. In the n-word there are ancestors, folk songs, popular foods, slang words, and history in proportions too gargantuan to erase. But if I could have one wish, one teeny-tiny thing whispered into the ink-dark night, it would be to one day open a dictionary to see it marked as archaic.
Image: "English Dictionaries" by jovike is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0.