Free Speech or Hatespeak? The ‘n’ word in Historical Romances

I debated for a week before deciding to post this piece but I thought it was important enough to do so. Some historical writers will probably not like me very much when they read it, but I’m hoping that they will take off their writer hat for a moment and put on their human hat to see the world from another point of view. If you write historical romances and think you’ll be offended by this post I have inserted the ‘cut’ here to spare your feelings. 🙂

Erastes did a post on The Macaronis recently about how to make historical characters sympathetic here. The example used was the television show Mad Men which is considerably more contemporary than the time periods used in historical romances, since this show is set in the sixties. This piece was used by many of the authors who commented as a jumping off point to discuss using the ‘n’ word in their books. What is it about that word that makes those who are not black think they have every right to use it? It’s certainly not sexy – in my view it’s the ugliest and most insulting word in the English language. Yet authors pass it off by saying – “Oh well, it’s the usage of the times”.

Some historical authors who commented on Erastes’s post came up with every rationale in the book about why it was right and proper to portray minorities, especially blacks, the way they did in their books, and it was clear from the comments that these demeaning characterizations will continue in future. A few writers trotted out the old saw that if we don’t learn from the past we are apt to repeat it, but do writers have to use the behaviour in past centuries as another opportunity for the ‘n’ word and make those of us in the world who are black cringe when we read your books? Is there no middle ground? Apparently we haven’t “come a long way baby.” Why do you even need to refer to ethnic minorities in your historical books if all you’re going to do is demean and denigrate them? Is it fun to make others feel like crap every time they come across hurtful, demoralizing, ‘in your face’ references to their race in historical books? Obviously, historical writers have every right to the way they see this issue just as I have the right to offer my own opinion, and I’m not a “bleeding heart liberal” or someone who is so “politically correct” that I can’t see another person’s viewpoint. My own family is made up of almost every race under the sun so my worldview is coloured by all the wonderful people of different colours that I call “family.”

Words have the power to hurt and humiliate just as surely as if someone were slapped in the face. Let me be clear about how I feel about about the way blacks are portrayed in historical romances and the language used to refer to them. I am offended. I think the use of the ‘n’ word in historical and contemporary M/M books or gay fiction should be abolished. Using this word is the same as spitting in a black person’s face, and if you keep on doing so, the racist connotations surrounding the word will never go away. We are not second class citizens. However, I don’t expect you to understand my perspective or stop what you’re doing. Maybe some of you are too insensitive to see the harm you’re doing by the use of this word. I don’t care in what context you use it, you are demeaning a whole race of people whenever you do. I can’t believe that 40 years after Dr. Martin Luther King and 1 year after the US elected its first biracial President that this word is still being used by historical writers.

Authors are quick to point out that historical accuracy demands that they be true to the periods about which they write, and the characterizations must be representative of the times. One writer said  in part

In my experience it’s guilt ridden whites that drive the political correctness view. Talk to some old time Southerners and they’ll tell you they had no trouble with ‘coloreds’ until the northern people came down and interfered with the natural order of things. And I have talked to people who have said exactly that.

It wasn’t clear whether the author agreed or disagreed with those views. Another writer who will be using the ‘n’ word in her upcoming book set in Mississippi in the 1930’s said

It’s a thorny subject, to be sure. I think if an author chooses to delve into that particular lexicon – the lexicon of hate, of discrimination, of marginalisation – that it’s important to establish a standard of usage. Your “Mad Men” example illustrates this perfectly.

So now it’s a “standard of usage” WOW! Another excuse used is we should not try to expunge history by denying the existence of the behaviour of the times. We all KNOW what happened in past centuries to slaves and other minorities, and for those who don’t, they can read a non fiction history book to get the correct information rather than a fictional account through an author’s characters.

If you’re so gung ho about historical accuracy here are a few inaccurate characterizations that you may wish to correct. Why are the historical heroes mostly great looking with perfect teeth? Did they brush those “pearly whites” with toothpaste several times a day and visit the dentist every 6 months for a check up? I guess not.  Yet there are no rotten teeth in historical romances except if the character is a villain. Why do we never read about obese historical heroes? I suppose they ate the right foods, went to the gym every day and had a personal trainer. Have you noticed that historical heroes never stink (at least it’s never mentioned)? We know they didn’t have frequent baths but I suppose if both protagonists smelled bad it didn’t really matter since they cancelled out each other’s nasty odours. I could go on but I think you’re getting my point. If historical accuracy is so important, let it all hang out.

There are some historical romance writers who delight in using the ‘n’ word, and they use it repeatedly in their books almost like a child uses the “f” word the first time he or she hears it. This word seems to be the favourite ‘in thing’ in historical romances every time a bigoted character is part of a story, and whenever I see it, I cringe. Even with stories set in the sixties and seventies, authors love to use the word. I can’t believe that there isn’t another way for authors to make their point about racists and bigots than by insulting an entire race of people. Unless you’re black you have no idea what this word does to our entire psyche and feeling of self worth. Intellectually I can recognize that a story set in another time will portray people and events differently but that word still diminishes me. I feel the same way about the names that Asians are called in historical romances.

Writers don’t cringe every time they write a racial epithet in historical romances because it doesn’t affect them. There aren’t many minorities who write historical romances, therefore writers of this genre cannot understand or appreciate why some minority readers are offended. Of course, since this is all done in the name of historical accuracy it shouldn’t matter  – we should just suck it up. I thought that we had managed over time to evolve and move away from offensive characterizations and words, so I’m wondering why historical romance writers seem to delight in perpetuating them. I guess the important question is, why do historical writers write negative minority characters in their books? Is it to rub our faces in the dirt? Do us a favour and don’t include black characters in your historical books – we don’t want to be in your books the current way we are portrayed. We all know about slavery. You’re not writing a non fiction book decrying man’s inhumanity to man.

Several months ago I wrote a blog post which I have linked here asking why there weren’t more positive minority protagonists in M/M contemporary romances (het romance is way ahead of M/M in this area), and the reasons given by the authors ranged from not knowing any minorities, (I guess we’re invisible) to not wanting to write “black gay fiction” (writing positive minorites in contemporary M/M romances was equated with “black gay fiction” – incredible), or being accused of perpetuating current negative portrayals of minorities. Pardon me, but that post was about a whole range of people who were not adequately represented in M/M romances – older gay characters, physically and mentally challenged protagonists, culturally diverse characters such as people from other religions – athiests, pagans, jews, etc., but many authors zeroed in on why they could not write black protagonists – it’s as if we’re another species. Yet authors don’t seem to have any difficulty writing negative stereotypical minority characters in historical romances.This is not a castigation against all historical writers. On the contrary, I enjoy a lot of historical romances and many of the authors are auto buys. However, some authors delight in using offensive words about blacks and other races and excuse this by saying they are establishing “a standard of usage”.

Writing is a form of free speech which is valued in most countries, including Canada where I live, and authors have every right to write what they want, whether or not they offend entire races. Similarly I think it’s my right to free speech to express my feelings about something that affects and offends me. Unless you’re a minority you probably won’t understand my perspective. Some minority characters and the language used to refer to them in historical romances are so reprehensible and grossly offensive that I have a difficult time understanding why they are in the book at all, except maybe to humiliate them and for the shock value. Perhaps these characters help to sell more books. Or perhaps the authors are praised by their colleagues for being brave enough “to go there”. Would historical authors really lose anything essential or critical in their books if they left out black characters since it’s clear that they can’t portray them in a positive way? Many contemporary M/M authors don’t seem to have any problem excluding positive minority characters as protagonists, so perhaps they could emulate their contemporary colleagues. I think those minorities who lived in historical periods have been denigrated enough – why continue to rub their and our faces in the dirt? As the old saying goes, “walk a mile in my shoes” maybe then you will understand my point of view.

Free speech has certain constraints and responsibilities – time and place being a couple – for example, you can’t or shouldn’t shout “fire” in a crowded room unless there really is a fire. So those of you who say it’s free speech to do what you do, you might want to remember this.

Author

I live in Canada and I love big dogs, music, movies, reading and sports – especially baseball

93 comments

  • I somehow missed this post earlier, just finding it now. I’m glad you posted this, though I’m sorry you’ve received hate mail in response to it. But I think (hope!) the public discussion here got (and will continue to get) people thinking. You dared throw the stone, and I believe that the ripple effect is quite powerful.

    I went to one of the most integrated high schools in the U.S., and my crowd was probably the most diverse there. We all learned a lot from hearing each other talk about our own experiences growing up black, or Mexican, or gay, or Catholic, or Jewish, or with lesbian parents, or a blind brother, or whatever. And I know perceptions and actions were changed as a result of those conversations.

    Although there are those who claim Berkeley, CA is a separate planet and the people who live there are a separate species… 😉

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