The N-word

As a result of my car accident last week, I had to turn around and spend my December 31 at home.  At least I got to spend it with a friend: Harper Lee.  I had several days off work and no real plans, so pulled out one of my favorite books – To Kill a Mockingbird – and re-read it to pass the time. 

As I read it, I couldn’t help thinking of the American Film Institute choosing it’s 100 best heroes – #1 being Atticus Finch.  And I think they’re spot on.  A case that many anticipated the jury would immediately decide as guilty ended up keeping them in debate past eleven at night.  It’s a fight Atticus knew he would lose, yet he fought anyway because he said he couldn’t expect his children to respect or mind him if he just walked away. 

The book is a story of racism, and as I read through it I kept thinking about how every child should read this as part of their upbringing, interspersed with discussion on racism and how harmful it is.  (Obviously, not reading this too young as it centers on a purported rape case.) 

I also took note of the rife use of “the n-word” throughout.  But of course it didn’t exactly mean what it means today.  At one point, Atticus says, “Don’t use ____, Scout.  That’s common.”  In other words, “People who aren’t educated use that word, but you’re above using words like that.”  While far from a compliment even in those days, the word is intended to invoke a reaction.  It’s intended to show the negative attitudes that people had toward blacks.  And thus I think it is appropriately used in the book. 

Which is why this BBC article on censoring the word from Huckleberry Finn annoyed me this morning…

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