I have just finished re-watching Ken Burns’ austere yet elegiac panorama in time and space entitled simply The Civil War, first broadcast 27 years ago. It occurred to me how quickly have curse words changed. I don’t mean since 1861-5, you understand, but from when the series was made. Nowadays in certain respects our sensibilities have become dulled; in other ways words not used to denigrate now burn like a grit-embedded knee graze on a hot, hot day. Back in 1990 in The Civil War actors read testimony from South and the North where speakers were conversant with and used the N word – yassah, dat N word.
Other epithets (and usually those connected with sex or genitalia), once damned; words that start with letters like F and C, are commonplace on TV and cable networks, but that ‘ole N is almost never heard, even if it is to be used in proper historical context, as it was in the Burns documentary. Producers self censor today — and in doing so have canonised a new taboo.
In polite company that N got replaced long ago with a litany of terms that change like hemlines. In no particular order, N got supplanted by “colored”,”negro”, then “black” and later still“…of color” Nowadays “African American” or in Britain “Afro-Caribbean” are in vogue. The same thing has happened with other groups’ identity, when ‘Injun’ became its own swear word and “Jap’ would make all but WW2 veterans blush. Next year, who knows? (But you can surely guess).
It will be interesting to see how brave or indeed ‘sensitive’ that same Ken Burns has been with the self same N word when his undoubtedly supreme examination of the Vietnam War airs on PBS come September. It was a word that many, dare I say it, ‘black’ servicemen used of themselves as a badge of pride, but will it figure in the series?
In regard to that lame phrase ‘African-American’… So much for Teddy Roosevelt who said:
“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. When I refer to hyphenated Americans, I do not refer to naturalized Americans. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all … The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic … There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”
By the way, I am getting more than a little ticked off by the majority of people in the world calling me “white”. It’s a racial slur — and it has to stop. I’ll get back to you when I’ve decided what you can and cannot call me.