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Sticks And Stones

Context is crucial.

A few years ago, I submitted The Final Victim for inclusion in some kind of anthology.


And now, a word from our sponsor.

He wrote to me asking about a racial slur appearing on the first page of the story.

The word was “nigger.”

I thought he was kidding, so of course, I gave him a smartass, snarky reply.

He wasn’t.

He replied to my reply in a similar vein. When I realized he was serious, I told him I’ve been called that many times in my life, so it didn’t occur to me anyone else might be bothered by it.

His answer made it obvious he’d thought I was white (yes, Virginia, Black people do write speculative fiction). Funny thing was, apparently my being Black made my using “nigger” okay.

Enlightenment is a thing.

Recently, I read a discussion thread on the same issue. An editor was working on a client’s manuscript, her great-grandmother’s memoir. Just as you’d think, the old woman spoke of a not-so-long time ago in a world within spitting distance of your front porch. And she used the word “nigger” a lot. The editor wondered whether they should disguise the word, like “n****r” or something. The consensus was they shouldn’t, but they should include a disclaimer in the front matter.

I appreciate non-Black people’s sensitivity to and distastefulness for the slur.


It’s the real world. And because it’s the real world, it’s reflected in our memories and our fiction. No amount of masking, no amount of leaving a white space in a sentence is going to make it go away. The slur will remain front and center until real people stop using it.

I’m not endorsing the use of racial slurs for the sake of using racial slurs. Context is everything. In great-grandma’s time, obviously “nigger” was used with abandon. That doesn’t mean it hurt any less, but if you’re going to be realistic about breathing life into a less enlightened time and place, you can’t show people walking around saying “n-word.” That does a disservice to and is disrespectful of great-grandma’s memories you’re putting on paper, her legacy to a more enlightened world.

Context is everything.

If we’re enlightened, why would we want to remember that shameful piece of our history? Because people who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. Isn’t that what we’ve been taught? What we’ve witnessed?

In The Final Victim, the protagonist is a wealthy Black man who owns a string of funeral homes. A wealthy, older and entitled white woman storms into one of his facilities and calls him a nigger. There are two points to this scene. One, in a stroke, we know who and what this white woman is. Two, it’s a reality for Black people that no matter how much money you have, no matter how well-dressed you are, no matter that you don’t have a “Black accent” when you speak, to some white people, you are, and will always be, a nigger. Less than. Unworthy of respect. The Other.

What happened to our protagonist, then, is a reflection of reality in fiction.

You can’t ignore this reality. It’s there. It can’t, and it won’t, be excised. For sure, you can avert your eyes and cover your ears. But to do so is to abandon reality for a fantasy. Where no one utters racial slurs. Where everyone is equal and respected as such. Utopian.

You can run, but you can’t hide.

The problem is reality has a really bad habit of intruding on fantasy. Trampling it. The only way to live your fantasy is to cocoon yourself from the world. Completely. The 5% have done a pretty good job of it. Yet reality sometimes tramples on their fantasy, too. When it does, they feel the pain.

Reality bites. And bites hard.

What does this mean for writers? It depends on the world we, as writers, create. If we create a contemporary world whose reality mirrors our own with all its ugliness, we can’t substitute asterisks between the first and last letters of a word that makes us cringe. If we do, the world we created ceases to be a mirror and is instead a distortion. The word is either there, or it isn’t. We can’t have it both ways.

If you’re worried about offending those with finer sensibilities, by all means–include a disclaimer, a trigger warning. Wrap them in cotton, in bubble wrap. Soften the blows.

But sticks are still sticks, and stones are still stones.

They hurt.

They will always hurt.

And won’t stop hurting until real people have thrown them away.





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