One of the most difficult problems I faced in writing A Partial Sun was how to deal with the n-word, especially because I am white. I considered avoiding its use altogether.
Yet the novel takes place in the 18th century and focuses on the experiences of an enslaved young man named Isaac Granger, born and raised on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello. The real-life Isaac Granger recounted to a Charles Campbell in the late 1840’s, some twenty years after Jefferson’s death, how “dry old Mr. Cary,” an occasional visitor to Monticello, would whip Isaac if he didn’t get a series of gates open in time for him to drive his horse through. I picture Isaac going at a sprint from gate to gate as Mr. Cary cantered easily along just behind him, stinging Isaac sharply with his lash and his laugh, and expecting Isaac to laugh, too. I doubt not the old bigot was prone to using the n-word on Isaac as he exercised his lash. Dry old Mr. Cary does not appear in my novel, but a character at least as bigoted does. This character, Daniel Shady by name, a tinsmith’s apprentice working for Mr. James Bringhouse of Philadelphia, is offended beyond measure that Isaac should be trained in the same craft, on equal terms, at a bench just beside his own. Shady’s invective against Isaac is punctuated by the n-word, the proud emblem of his deep-seated prejudice.
Should I have had Shady use milder language out of consideration for our contemporary revulsion for the historical use of this inflammatory epithet? I did limit his use of the word and tried to soften its impact by using a substitution: “n---.” I wondered, though, if this substitution by its avoidance of the actual word only served to call greater attention to it. Furthermore, while this substitution would serve for the written text, how was I to read it aloud at a reading event or for an audio book?
This question notwithstanding, I remained committed to “n---” right up until the final draft, when I decided to seek counsel, first from Wornie Reed, Director of the Race and Social Policy Center at Virginia Tech, and then from Bennett Johnson, owner of PATH Press Inc, in Illinois. Mr. Reed advocated for my using “nigger,” provided I verified that the word was in fact used derogatorily in the 18th century, which I did verify; Mr. Johnson recommended likewise, asking rhetorically, “wasn’t nigger Jim a hero in Huck Finn?”
So I followed their advice, and to underscore it included the following exchange, in the Introduction, between Isaac Granger and the Reverend Charles Campbell, as recounted by Campbell: “On one point only, Isaac and I vigorously disagreed; namely, in regards to his inclusion of the word ‘nigger’ when quoting the speech of the despicable Daniel Shady. ‘The word is coarse,’ I objected, ‘an emblem of bigotry, and will offend the gentle ears of my readers!’ He only laughed at my objection. ‘Let it offend!’ he retorted. ‘If I have been required to bear the sting of that word upon my ears time and again all these years, then your readers must learn to bear it too, in all its savagery! Besides, I have been considerate of your readers more than you know, for if I were to include every instance of its use, why this proposed book of yours would require fumigation upon every readin’!’
In addition to this, I included the following statement in the Disclaimer or “Notice to the Reader,” borrowed with permission from Ross Howell, Jr., author of Forsaken: “The language used in the book includes crude idioms and epithets that reflect what the author believes would have been authentic to the period and characters The author intends no offense, disparagement, or hurt.”
In the end, however, whatever justification I may provide, readers will have to judge for themselves of my decision on the n-word. Some will approve, some not. It is my hope that these few paragraphs will make my decision comprehensible at least.