The (Other) N-Word

Two years ago, I self-published 250 copies of Cheesesteak, a memoir about growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1950s and ‘60s. I gave about half away to people who had shared experiences with me and sold most of the rest. A distributor offered to take the book on if I printed more, and a friend, who had experience as a copy editor, offered to read proof.

On p. 3, she questioned my use of the word “Negro.” (I had written that my immigrant paternal grandfather’s medical practice at 10th & Baimbridge was devoted primarily to “Jews and Italians and Negroes, who paid him in cash or produce or homemade wine.”) It turned out that in 101 pages I had used “Negro” 18 times, “black” (in a racial context) 10 times, and “Afro-American once. (I had also used, twice each, usually quoting a speaker, “nigger” and “schvartze.”) All the pieces which composed the book had appeared on-line or in-print in publications of modest but actual readership, and no one of whom I was aware had objected to any word I’d written, except for one editor, who’d changed the title “My First Faggot” into a Spanish phrase with all considerations of – or attitudes toward  – sexual preference removed.

My friend said “Negro” was unacceptable. She cited as authority President Obama, The New York Times, the Oxford Dictionaries, Wikipedia, and an esteemed friend of hers who edited a journal about flutes. (My friend played one.) She said if I did not replace each “Negro” with “black,” she did not want her name associated with my book, even amongst a list of people I was thanking. (Besides “black,” she allowed, I could use “people of color” or “black dudes.” But, I replied, no other colors were under consideration, and wouldn’t I have to say “black dudes and dudettes” or risk being accused of sexism as well as racism.)

Language is a funny thing, whose potency ebbs an flows like tides – or major league franchises.

In the period about which I was writing, “Negroes” was the word of choice among the people, white or black, upon whom Cheesesteak reported, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, Norman (“The White Negro”) Mailer, and Norman (“My Negro Problem – and Ours”) Podhoretz. “Colored” was fading but not uncommon. Schvartze was used only with a humorous, if slightly negative, connotation, and “nigger” was verbotten. I don’t recall hearing or reading a single “Afro-American,” and “black” didn’t begin to come into prominence until Stokely Carmichael’s then-unsettling espousal of “Black Power” toward the end of my time in Philly. (Interestingly, if puzzlingly, I learned that “Negro” had been replaced by “black”  because “Negro” derived from the Spanish negro, which itself came from the Latin niger, both of which meant, in English, “black.” In other words, “black,” in English, was acceptable but “black, in Spanish, was not.)

I had replied to my friend with a knee-jerk assertion of authorial independence and control. But, I said, after seeing I’d used “black” nearly as frequently as “Negro,” I could probably change a few, if not most of the offending words. If “most,” she asked, why not “all”?

This was a good question. Since she was a musician, I answered that, when I wrote, I felt like one. I structured sentences rhythmically. I chose words and phrases like, I imagined, she shaped notes, by how they related to others, by the emotions and associations they raised, by how they thematically fit the whole. If a “people of color” landed in my ear like a dropped bassoon in an orchestra pit, it would not suit no matter how attractive it otherwise was. If a word did not fit my sense of the thinking or conversation of the time, if it grated rather than enriched, that would weigh against the approval it might find with others.

Looking back at my word choices in this book, I believe “Negro” to have been most prevalent on its pages because it was most prevalent in those days. When I opted for “black,” it was most often as a balance against “white” – “white girls” dating “black guys,” Market Street dividing “black” neighborhoods from “white” one. “ Or “black” could be used to provide an ominous and risky edge – a ‘black” bar at which I drank – and “Negro” a patina of respect and class – a “Negro girl” I dated.

I consider myself to be – just about – a First Amendment absolutist. Mere ink on paper, I say. Or sound waves in the air. What’s the harm? The thinnest skinned should not determine what the rest of us see or hear. “Sticks and stones…,” you know. Yet, there were words I would not utter, nor to which, like my friend, I would not attach my name. So I decided to seek other opinions. I queried three writer/editors (all white, all male) with whom I had dealings.

The youngest – and most connected to the zeitgeist – said I could use “Negro” only if quoting someone. (He also said, “Definitely nix ‘Afro-American’ from your text – and, for that matter, your life. ‘Afro’ is a hair style. ‘African is the people.”)

The second youngest – and the most politically engaged – said, “Given the times you’re recalling, I can’t imagine ‘Negroes’ is too far gone. It didn’t stick in my eye.” (His wife, I would note, is African.)

The third – the oldest – and the outlaw of the bunch – said, “Get a new proof reader.”

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