Over the years in which I’ve been in nonfiction publishing, I’ve had to deal with the issue of offensive language in a variety of projects. Generally, although not always, Lerner Publishing Group finds ways to avoid whitewashing primary source documents, believing in the integrity of the original text and in the need for all informed citizens to fully understand the power of language for good and for evil.
Just last week, I was reviewing a TFCB manuscript that is struggling with offensive racial language, and I was reminded that Carrie Golus, the author of our Booklist star-reviewed Tupac Shakur biography, had to deal with this very issue in that book. So I asked her to write about her experience. Below are her thoughts.
I guess the term “kids’ book” is misleading, though I’m not sure there’s a better substitute. It makes you think of picture books with soft, watercolor illustrations, or classics like Winnie-the-Pooh or The Hobbit. Most people don’t think of biographies for children, though of course we all read stacks of them during our school years.
I did write a kids’ book on Tupac—yes I did, you can look it up—but I certainly had some difficulties accomplishing that task. How was I supposed to make an R-rated life into a G-rated one, without sanitizing or flat-out lying?
So not surprisingly, when I turned in the manuscript, I attached a long list of questions for my editor at Lerner. Among them:
1. What should his name be? In many kids’ biographies, the subject is called by first name during childhood, then last name during adulthood. But Tupac seemed to have achieved first-name status, like Madonna or Cher. So I called him “Tupac” throughout—was this ok?
2. What should I include in the glossary? Would readers be more likely to need the ten-dollar words defined, or the hip-hop terms?
3. I spelled it “gangster rap,” but should it be “gangsta”?
4. What should I do about Tupac’s profligate use of the n-word (a euphemism almost as ugly as the term it replaces)? It was impossible to avoid, given that his second album was called Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.
In quotes where Tupac had used the word, I ended up substituting “people” in square brackets—“That’s a fair fight, am I right? Two [people] against me?”
I thought the quotes worked well enough without it, and my editor agreed. But at the same time, I felt guilty about the excision. Tupac’s currency was words, and I was censoring one that he used very, very often. It felt a bit like writing a book about Picasso, without being allowed to mention the color blue.
The night before I sat down to write this blog, I was having dinner with my seven-year-old twins. One of them asked me, without warning, the way kids do, “Mommy, what’s the n-word?”
“Why do you ask?” I said. A classic parenting tactic: stall for time.
“Eric was talking about it at school. He said he knew what it meant.” Eric is African American. If it matters.
“He wouldn’t tell you?”
I took a deep breath. Then I told them. I spelled it for them. “It’s a very bad word for a black person, and you must never, ever use it.”
They were puzzled. “But why? Why is that so bad?”
My last experience of explaining the n-word—when I was teaching English as a second language in the Deep South, right around the time that Tupac was shot and killed—had played out in almost the exact same way. My students had specifically asked about it. So I wrote the terms in order on the board: African American at the top (preferred), black (acceptable, sometimes capitalized), Negro (outdated), then the n-word (never, never, never, ever use). My students diligently copied the word down. Then I erased it before I could be fired.
My ESL students didn’t understand it either. If you don’t speak English, if you don’t hear racial epithets, it’s just a word. A half-step removed from a once-acceptable, now outdated word. A phoneme or two away from harmless English words like “bigger” or “snicker.”
“I don’t know how to explain it. It just is,” I said to my twins. “So none of the other kids knew what it meant?” I asked. Most of the students in their school are African American. My kids, blue-eyed and blond, are very much in the minority.
“Not a single kid?”
My turn to be incredulous. Could it be true, that second-graders being raised on the South Side of Chicago had never heard that word in its original, ugly context? Never heard it shouted, say, during a traffic dispute?
I thought about Tupac’s song“Changes”—a bitter, optimistic, dark, hopeful song—and especially the line about how we weren’t ready for a black president. And I couldn’t help it. I teared up.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the n-word was just one of many, many racial epithets for African Americans. And now they have quietly been forgotten. Might the n-word die out someday too? It will, if we stop using it. If we stop using it.
Check in next week for more from TFCB.