The N-word: Is it ever OK to say? Plus NaNoWriMo editing update

Hola, Writer Peeps!

grawlix wikimedia pdi
FYI: A string of characters that take the place of a cuss word is called a grawlix.

What do you think? Can I say the N-word and other “bad” words in a historical context? Or are some words just not acceptable ever?

As an example of non-acceptance, my husband Frazierhead and I went to a family’s home for dinner. The children ate in another room so they could relax and be children and so the grownups could relax and be grown up.

Over soup, our hosts asked if we had seen the movie Amazing Grace, a biographical film about the abolishment of the African slave trade in England. We said that we had and that we recommended it.

The mom asked if the movie was appropriate for children. I answered, “There’s no overt violence but there’s language you may not want your children to hear.”

“Like what?” she pressed. “What do they say?”

Because I was among adults and because she asked me directly, I said that, in the movie, a slave owner refers to a slave as the N-word. Only I didn’t say, “the N-word.” I said the N-word.

Both husband and wife—in unrehearsed but perfect unison—audibly gasped and drew back as if I had slapped them. Silence fell over the room. I looked to Frazierhead for support. He seemed frozen in wide-eyed horror. I quickly started chattering about the historical accuracy of the film’s use of the N-word, avoiding saying it again, and then changed the subject. We were not invited back.

mark_twain_by_af_bradley i said it
Mark Twain, 1907. Photo by A.F. Bradley, public domain

In retrospect, I should have apologized. Even though, in context, I hadn’t said anything deliberately cruel or racist, the fact that I said the N-word at all was offensive to that couple and shocking to my husband. The current American convention says to replace some cuss words—the really bad ones—with initials. We say “the N-word,” “the B-word,” and “the F-word.”

The problem, I think, with the initial thing is that all words are symbols. When I wrote, “the N-word,” I put that word into your brain. You didn’t wonder what I meant. I accomplished the exact same thing that I would have accomplished by saying or writing the word out in full. This seems pointless to me. I’d rather say the word or not say it. But seeing where that gets me in the real world, I’m hesitant to follow through.

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is full of the N-word. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird also uses it. Yet both books are clearly anti-racism. The racist words within the stories testify to racism’s cruelty within those cultures and in those times. Still, some people believe that the use of the word alone compels us to ban or censor these books–or at least let them drop off of reading lists. What do you think? Should books with bad words get put on the shelf forever? Should we “fix” art and censor history to make it conform to our current sensibilities?

Read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn online for free.
Read To Kill a Mockingbird online for free. 

As writers, we know that authentic characters make or break our story. But we also know to write for our target reader. And if our target reader is going to gasp and fall back, or—more importantly—stop reading if we let our characters use bad words, we need to make adjustments. Or we need to reevaluate our target reader.

In fiction, it’s easy to avoid cussing.
Marion slammed the vase to the ground, shouting profanities at no one in particular.

“Why, you’re just a no good, dirty–”
“Enough!” Alex pulled him back by the collar.

I’ve mentioned the 1964 film Lady in a Cage (bad title) before, but it’s still the best example of believable bad-guy dialogue without cussing that I know. If you write bad-guy characters and want to avoid cussing, it’s worth your time to see it. Don’t let kids watch it, though. Even without cussing or nudity, it’s violent and disturbing.

I’m currently writing a biographical book about ordinary family life during the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. A lot of racial slurs, sexist slurs, and homophobic slurs flew freely in those days. I’m tiptoeing around the words in my book, but I will have to make some hard choices. Do I spell out the sins of the past or just hint at them?

What would you do as a writer? As a reader, would you read an overall “good” book if it contains bad words? Or would you shrink back in horror? Let me know in the comments below. We’re all in this together.



UPDATE!  Half Off Copyedits for NaNoWriMo Winners

I’ve currently booked 241,000 words of the 800,000-word limit. That means there’s still plenty of room to book your work in progress! Details HERE.



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