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Should we censor historical language?

(115 Posts)
Lilygran Mon 26-Aug-13 15:30:18

There has been a considerable fuss in the US recently about a celebrity caterer, Paula Deene, who has been accused of using the 'n' word. She's a 66 year old Southerner and has admitted she did use the word in the past but says she wouldn't use it now. I came across the word recently in a novel written in the 1950s and it gave me a shock. Enid Blyton is being rewritten to get rid of examples of language and attitudes but lots of copies of original editions are still around. I think this is a very tricky question. Do you explain to your DGCs what they will find in the book, wait till they comment or not let them have the book? And should we be censoring books in this way?

Elegran Mon 26-Aug-13 15:38:28

Of course we should not censor books from the past. If they contain things we would not say or refer to now, we should educate the readers to recognise that, and to take them in the context of the society in which they were written.

Otherwise we will be in the same position as the Victorians whose copies of Shakepeare's plays (and much else) had been revised by Thomas Bowdler of bowdlerising fame.

Riverwalk Mon 26-Aug-13 15:40:36

Lilygran some words are just too awful to go unchallenged - the N word being one.

If an old book is to be re-printed then I think such words should be replaced - if you had black or mixed-race grandchildren you wouldn't want to see them described as Little Niggers would you?

Gagagran Mon 26-Aug-13 16:05:01

Well my late brother in law was called Nigel and throughout his boyhood was always called - by everyone - the n word. Nicknames seem to have gone out of fashion but most people had one when I was young and his was just another one.

My Mum was a keen sewer and had reels and reels of "Sylko" cotton - one of which was n....r brown. Then there was the Agatha Christie book "Ten Little Ns". When did it become such an insulting word which had to be censored out of use? Ireally don't understand how words can become proscribed.

Elegran Mon 26-Aug-13 16:27:24

If the words we don't like are all removed from the books that contain them, how will future generations know that the words existed, or what they meant?

Seen in the context of the original stories, they don't seem as racist as they do when used as weapons. Enid Blyton and so on were not racist the way aggressive racists nowadays are racist, attacking with words they know will hurt, they were being ordinary for their day.

Leaving them in place shows how the intention shifted and became cruel, despite the authors being innocent of bad intentions. Eliminating them leaves a gap in the record, and falsifies history.

Ariadne Mon 26-Aug-13 16:30:32

"To Kill a Mockingbird" was often on the exam syllabus, certainly till I retired a few years ago. I remember the shock shown by Y11 at the n word, but they accepted that it was part and parcel of the book.

The n word was proscribed, surely, because of the deep offence it caused to black people? Wasn't it from the vocabulary of the slave owners?

I do think we need to be sensitive about using offensive words, of course. But I think the censoring of historical works is not useful. Was it Dr Johnson who changed to ending of "King Lear"? Or did he just deplore it?

(Slight digression - equally, I remember Y7 getting very cross because someone's father, in a novel set in the fifties, actually smoked!!)

whenim64 Mon 26-Aug-13 16:36:49

The film was on TV recently, and the word was still in there, appropriately, as it showed the prejudice that Atticus was defending his client against. I think where such words are used in a way that doesn't readily reflect the culture or views of the time, it would be helpful to insert an explanatory paragraph at the beginning of the book.

merlotgran Mon 26-Aug-13 16:50:34

Guy Gibson of Dambuster's fame had a black labrador called Nigger. It was still in the film when it was recently shown.

petallus Mon 26-Aug-13 16:53:55

I was rather surprised to see a 'golly' looking out of the back of a 4 x 4 the other day.

whenim64 Mon 26-Aug-13 17:06:19

I think I would draw the line well before that, Petallus, as I guess, would you. smile It's one thing leaving the past in context and explaining why it's been left behind, and another to be displaying gollies in the back of a car.

Ariadne Mon 26-Aug-13 17:52:14

I agree!

petra Mon 26-Aug-13 17:54:07

We had a black lab called Nigger and my Father didn't have a racist bone in his body.

Galen Mon 26-Aug-13 17:58:17

I rather liked "little black sambo' as a child. Particularly the pancakes at the end! I suppose its also politically incorrect as the tiger is depicted as wicked and dissolves into fat to cook the pancakes in.
Wonder:- knowing what effect the Chinese attribute to tiger parts, what the effect on little sambo would have been? Would he have become big Sambo?

(Just thinking)

nanaej Mon 26-Aug-13 19:01:50

I loved that story too and remember the illustrations as being wonderful. I also had a much loved golly called Mr Stripes!

I have retold the story of LBS to children but changed the name to anIndian name and used local words for mum and dad. Children loved the story and the ingenuity of the boy in saving himself from the fierce and proud tiger! it is a story of a warm and loving family in India and has a lot to recommend it apart from the insensitive use of 'British Raj' institutionally racist terms! Helen Bannerman may not have thought she was being racist but the attitudes of the time certainly were.

Many teachers have used books written in different times to initiate discussion and debate and I think that is healthy.

nanaej Mon 26-Aug-13 19:02:43

Galen meant to add a grin for your last comment!

janeainsworth Mon 26-Aug-13 21:02:47

Interestingly, it is acceptable for African-Americans to use the N-word between themselves, but not for non-blacks to do so.
The reasons for this seem to escape even the academics hmm

whenim64 Mon 26-Aug-13 21:20:34

I was watching a Richard Pryor documentary, in which he talked about his use of this word. Late n his career, he had a lightbulb moment and decided it did nothing to advance the progress of black people, so he stopped using it.

Ana Mon 26-Aug-13 21:27:00

I read somewere that Little Black Sambo was deemed to be OK as a book title, as it's purely descriptive.

Galen Mon 26-Aug-13 21:27:00


absent Mon 26-Aug-13 21:31:14

Language cannot be separated from the culture of a society as a discrete thing. Language is what we use to develop and describe concepts so it follows that the language of the past – words such as nigger, Chinkie and queer – reflect the culture and values of past societies or parts of a society. Censoring the words themselves means censoring historical facts and ideas and that is indeed a dangerous route to take.

MargaretX Mon 26-Aug-13 21:46:55

Enid Blyton seems antiquated to our children anyhow. Being on an island and looking for the one red telephone box. This is another world anyhow for our GCs. Leave the text as it is.

feetlebaum Mon 26-Aug-13 22:27:22

My ex-boss, a black lady singer from New Jersey, sent out copies of Little Black Sambo as a Christmas card to her friends one year...

Nelliemoser Mon 26-Aug-13 22:54:21

Having read this thread. I would suggest if using some of these stories maybe modifying the offensive words etc where much younger children are involved, but to use it to open a dialogue with the older children who would have a little more sophistication to understand the issues and arguments involved.
As Nanaej says in the stories LBS is a clever hero.

Care would obviously be needed in this project.

absent Mon 26-Aug-13 23:11:34

Nelliemoser Of course you're right but don't we already exercise judgement about what books to read or give to children based on their levels of understanding and maturity?

j08 Mon 26-Aug-13 23:12:37

I would n' t put Enid Blyton in front of my grandkids in the first place. Not with the wealth of good books available for children today.

The n word is despicable in any circumstances.