Monday 27 March 2023

The 'N - word' before it became the ultimate unmentionable.


The idea of using this subject for a post comes about through very recent news that some of Agatha Christie's novels (as well as some of Roald Dahl's) are being altered so as to have terms which are now considered to be 'racially insensitive' either altered or completely removed for future published editions. I am not going to argue here whether such changes are or aren't justified.

Those of my generation and older will recall the time when this word was in almost everyday use by many, including friends and even relatives, with hardly an eyebrow raised in disapproving reaction. It must have been in the 1970s when, at least in England, it became 'dubious' until, following the example of the U.S.A., it became (probably in the 1980s) unacceptable virtually everywhere, especially in a social context - though it was , and I believe still is, used by (racist) comedians in the relative seclusion of private clubs. I recall it being used on TV 'comedy' shows still well into the 70s - this was a time when one of the most popular shows here was the weekly 'Black and White Minstrel Show', all the male singers and dancers having blacked-up faces, all the females without the black make-up but in alluring, revealing dresses as also their dancers, some in almost bikini-like costumes so as to give show to much exposed, exclusively white, female flesh which, it was assumed, that audiences liked to see.  

When my family first got a television, around 1958 - before colour of course - one of the very first films we watched together was the Agatha Christie thriller advertised above - which, with its unexpected, breath-taking resolution, made a deep and highly favourable impression on me. Christie herself had used the 'N-word' when transferring her novel, originally called 'Ten Little Indians', into a stage play. 'Ten Little Soldiers' had also briefly been employed. Incidentally, when I saw the play on stage about 30 years ago (though knowing the big 'reveal' of the plot rather blunts the experience) even 'Indians' had become 'Travellers' - which itself, with its uncloaked suggestion of gypsies, has now also become a clear no-no.  And the play's title, like the 1974 re-make film - and with, indeed, Christie's own approval which she had also herself previously used - had by then become the entirely innocuous 'And Then There Were None'. 

I hadn't heard of Lenny Bruce when I saw the 1974 Dustin Hoffman / Bob Fosse film, which I liked a lot - and moved me to find out more about the man. (Oh, how I'd liked to have seen him reacting, assuming his political and social stances had remained unchanged, to our present Trump-world!) In the film 'Lenny' he masterfully illustrates how the sting can be drawn from the word 'nigger' by using it regularly and non-judgmentally - a lesson which is, arguably, still valid today. However, I think there's not enough recognition that within the 'family' of non-white people, the word can be used as a term of friendliness or even affection - as much as the word 'queer' can, and is also used in a non-pejorative sense between gay, (usually) men. But that does not give authority to those outside those particular worlds to use the words as a put-down, something which is obviously not so when used by one member of such set towards another, as like an informal form of address. There is no sense here of one individual claiming a superiority over another in these cases. 

I began primary school in 1952. In my family I have always been the darkest one - as well as the tallest, though that is 'only' 6 feet. Being born in India (of mainly European 'stock') was enough to additionally mark me out as someone 'different'. Some years back my younger brother had one of those ancestry tests done, which showed, unsurprisingly to us, a significant Iberian strain - my father claimed to be half-Portuguese, so hence is my surname, slightly altered from its original - as well as some Scandinavian - my paternal grandfather's 'other half' being Danish. But there was also some [I think 18%] Asian, which may have come from my mother's side, though she, as English, wasn't aware of - or didn't want to say? -  where that originated from. At primary school, and it's hardly credible now, among 600 infant and junior pupils, I was the sole one who was most visibly not white, moreso than any of my three brothers. So I was an obvious target for the 'n' word, though, must say, not frequently, just now and again, and more often than not, abbreviated to 'nig' - and by boys (it was always only boys) from classes other than my own who didn't know me. Of course, being called 'nig' or the full word hurt, as it was meant to, though it didn't obsess me unduly. I just thought of it as being part of the world. As far as I know, my brothers had not suffered the same indignities that I did, though their complexions were a shade, or even two, lighter than mine was. When I started grammar school at 11, I found once again that I was the darkest out of another 600 boys (a boys-only school), that is until a young guy with coal-black skin joined some years later, and who, I noted, after riding out silently all the laughing and ribbing behind his back - sometimes even to his face - he quickly became hugely popular, gaining a retinue of devoted fans who followed him around and chatting with him at recreation time, something I'd never experienced myself. I felt so happy for him, though wasn't brave enough to tell him so.

Anyway, going back to 'Ten Little Niggers', at my first school, there was an annual event where pupils from all years were chosen by their teachers to take part in a series of performances before the whole school in the assembly hall. It was a Roman Catholic school whose headmistress was a nun, as also was her deputy/final-year teacher. All the other teachers were lay women and two men, all also R.C. of course. This particular year when I'd have been 7 or 8, the year above me had been given the task to act-out the then relatively well-known children's song 'Ten Little Niggers' (from which Christie got her book title, though which is never heard nowadays) on the assembly hall stage, with ten chosen boys given blacked-up faces (shoe polish?) - as well as big curtain-ring sized earrings(!) plus some garishly coloured scarf. Then they'd be made to pop up to being visible one by one from behind a low lateral screen to illustrate the song's story, with the respective, varied (humorous) demises - I remember one being caught by a shark, another being poisoned with a cake - all while the whole school, including teachers and nuns, along with a couple of priests as guests from the adjoining church, singing along merrily and heartily the chorus line of - "One little, Two little, Three little, Four little, Five little NIGGER boys" the chorus being repeated as each boy 'died' thus reducing the number 'survivors' - so at least TEN times altogether!.......all the while leaving me inwardly squirming as I watched the wretched, demeaning spectacle from a tightly-packed bench. I don't remember if I made some show of pretending to sing along.

Ah, such were the times! Better now? Well maybe - or.....?



  1. I don't like that word and have never used it. I get sort of twitchy when I hear Black people use it, though I understand the idea of takin the word back; it's much like gay men using the word queer or fag.
    But if you aren't Black, please do use it, just like if you aren't gay, don't say queer or fag.

    1. I've never used the word myself either, Bob. This blog is probably the first time I've either written or certainly said it
      - though maybe when I was young I perhaps did mention the name of that film.
      Btw: I always brace myself every Xmas when I'm bound to hear at least once that infernal 'Fairy Tale of New York' - and for 'that' word to come round. I just never get used to it. It's like a little stab, unless I can switch it off in time. So when I hear people like Stephen Fry being asked if he minds it and he answers with an emphatic "NO! Of course not!" I just think "Well, lucky you!" 'cos I myself just can't get past it.

  2. Language is so fluid, and words tend to go in cycles. I find it fascinating. My mom says Grandma didn't allow the word "fool". Really, any word can be used as an epitaph-words as simple as woman or man. And yet, certain words get such a negative connotation, they become taboo. And then, there are words from country to country to consider. I doubt many Americans question the word gypsy, yet I'm on so much social media, I've learned to avoid using it.

    1. When I was last working (Goodness! Now 35 years ago!) I used to routinely refer to women I'd had work encounters with but didn't know their names, as a 'young lady', which frequently caused some amusement among my work colleagues. My intention had been to be complimentary on two levels. However, times change. Nowadays it would almost certainly earn one a severe reprimand or even get fired!
      Yes, attitudes and reactions do swing this way and that over time and there's no knowing what will next be on the 'verboten' list, though it could well be something to which now no one gives a second thought.
      The word 'gypsy' will now never be heard here on news on current affairs programmes, or even in (most) newspapers. Trouble is, the substitute word 'travellers' has such a broad meaning and connotation it's practically meaningless without context, or even with it. I just can't keep up with the rapid mobility of change.

  3. Sadie is right
    Language is fluid and so are insults and meaning and ways of doing things
    We all have to adapt and change with things

    1. Precisely so, JayGee. Currently I'm getting much 'entertainment' from watching American Republicans trying to define the word 'woke' which they use so widely to apply to anything or anyone they don't like, yet are unable to agree on its meaning. I say 'Long Live Wokeness!' - whatever it means.