February 4, 2013

A Writer's Life - Ten Little Dark-Skinned Boys

Have you ever read a book that was all but politically correct? A book that had racism shine through like a blinding beacon? If you read a lot this will eventually happen to all of us. If you believe, as do I, that with writing comes a certain responsibility then you will be appalled by uneducated or even hateful remarks and descriptions in books. Not to say that for some story-lines it might not be necessary to depict eg a certain character as a racist, but there's a huge difference between a character being of a certain mindset or the person who wrote the book.

In January there's been quite an uproar in the book community in both Germany and Austria all thanks to a publisher removing controversial language from a classic children's book. The book in question was the 1957 tale The Little Witch by Ottfried Preussler which is apparently littered with "questionable" terms including words like "negro". For a better understanding of the whole debate I urge you to read the article in full.

I was appalled (again) but not in the way some of you might be thinking. My first thought was, and there's definitely the wordsmith in me talking, that this just isn't right. The book has been written decades ago and while it might not be "politically correct" today we should see it in its historic and socio-political context. Those are lovely stories which kids today deserve to read or be read to and if you're able to teach your child how to tie their shoes than you damn well better be capable of talking about why certain expression have been used way back when and why they're not ok today. I mean, is that so hard? For the above mentioned publisher it apparently is.

To me, despite the good intention behind it, this is simply taking things a step too far. And I seriously wonder what Mr Preussler had to say about all of this. If there is one word for it then it's censorship. You're neither doing children a favor nor are you going to make the affected author very happy. At least I wouldn't exactly be elated if sixty years down the road someone decided to censor certain expressions in stories I have written as they are suddenly considered to be littered with discriminatory language. I bet most authors will feel that way.

One particular example that comes to mind, and many of you will be familiar with the rhyme, goes, Ten little nigger boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were Nine [...] One little nigger boy left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were None.
Of course today the version replaces the offensive word with "soldier". Fifty years down the road that term probably won't be politically correct anymore either.

And then, of course, there's the case of Huckleberry Finn. For more info about the rather recent changes to the text, check out this NY Times article.

What's your take on all of this? Do you consider such changes an attack on artistic integrity or do you feel that literature, which is older or dated, needs to be "updated" to fit into what's conceived as politically correct in our society? Please share.

14 comments:

  1. There were attempts to change, or to remove from the list of books studied in schools, some literature pieces and even - oh dear - poetry. They were all written about a century or more ago, and were accused of using unappropriate words that may build hate towards other countires or sound offensive.But first, they were created in an age where those words didn't carry that much of an offensive meaning, or were a norm and the were also written at times of war and yoke and I doubt writers from the very same period from the other side would speak very kindly. But those are stories of how things were. And not of how things are now. I think every person should be able to make difference of the past and the present and understand. It is a delicate subject to discuss, and even now I am not sure I find the right words for it. But I don't think such books should be censored, we should remember how things were, even if we're not happy or proud abou it, and literature helps us. It would be much more easier to change one word than actually to explain to a child (or why not a grown up), but that would kill the point.

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    1. I agree - change would be easy and in my opinion it's more important to explain and thus come to an understanding.

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  2. Don't get me started. That is total nonsense. The same with Pippi Langstrumpf. Those publishers seemingly all go insane.

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    1. Oh come on, a little rant every now and then is good for your complexion. ;-)

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  3. Oh, we've had sucl lively debates about this and I'm on the fence. First of all, there's a difference between Huck Finn and Ten Little Soldiers in that Huck Finn depicts a time when that was the ideology used, whereas 10 Little Nigger Boys has nothing at all to do with the story and is just offensive. Was the rhyme 10 little nigger boys back then - yes, but we have evolved as a society and there's no need for that. If you don't find that offensive, whether you're of African descent or not, then that just makes me scared of what other racist opinions you might have.

    Pippi Longstocking is another one that I agree with replacing her father being a "nigger king" to just being a king because, again, what has that got to do with the story? Nothing. He is a king, leave it at that.

    My view is that public institutions should have the right to choose to buy censored works if they want to. There are so many people whining about eg Tintin being censored for being racist while ignoring the fact that some of these books have been censored for being cruel to animals. Herve himself said that he agreed to censor his work in order to have it published in Scandinavia and thought nothing of it.

    Furthermore, what's in a word? If it's a children's book, why not remove an offending word? If, in 50 years' time "soldier" is deemed offensive, what is the big huff about removing it? How does that add to the rhyme? There's 10 of something and then one gets lost along the way. I genuinely believe in the non-offensive approach whenever possible, but then again I'm not writing from a priviledged white perspective - but that's an issue for another time.

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    1. You are right that there is a difference between a book like Huckleberry Finn and the 10 Little Nigger Boys rhyme and I used the latter as an additional example for the changes that occurred over time (and those that will). In both cases I view the text as such as a piece of history and I would hope that this doesn't make me a racist.

      As to your view about public institutions having the right to choose to buy censored works if they want to, that reminds me of those Creationist schools which scratch the dinosaurs out of textbooks. Let's just say, I don't approve of that either.

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    2. Well in Huck Finn and 10 LNB the difference is in the text and the title. The title of the latter has nothing implicitly to do with the text. These are statues of black boys that are disappearing, not literally 10 black boys. What I'm saying is that if you don't see anything offensive in that title, and cannot understand that it is offensive, then I question your views on language and race.

      I don't want to go too far into this, but possibly because I have studied this I may see it from a different point of view. In International Relations and Conflict Resolution studies we distinguish between the offended and the offender, stating that the offended is always in the right. The offender cannot simply state they they had no intention of offending, or this is how we spoke back then - if a person is offended, they are in the right. There are things I've said without knowing they are offensive and later been told otherwise. For instance, I was told to refer to a certain group of peoples as "gypsies" but was later on told that this was an offensive term and the proper name is "Roma/Romani". Now, I would never dream to continue calling people gypsies knowing full and well that it's offensive. The word "nigger" by definition means a black person who is of lesser value and if you use that word it means that you agree with its meaning - hence my comment about racist views. You may not be a racist, but in using that word you are willingly using racist terminology.

      When it comes to creationists and evolutionists it's a different story because then we are talking about content and context. Like I said, in Huck Finn the word is within its context and I have no issues with that. It's the same as reading a book with a character calling someone a "bitch" or "fag" - but to have a title saying 10 Litte Fag Boys and then a story that has nothing to do with that, is ridiculous and yes, I agree with that being censored.

      We'll have to agree to disagree on this one, and no, I don't think you're a racist at all - if I did, I wouldn't be interacting with you - I'm just relating my point of view. Language is very powerful and I understand that authors (and other artist) are very protective of their work, but sometimes I think they need to take a step outside of themselves and see how things seem. It's funny how nobody comments on how newspapers and daytime TV and radio omitts certain words from broadcast, like "nigger" and "fuck", but when it comes to literature everyone is crying censorship! Why not put those Adult Content stickers on children's book with offensive language so that parents know in advance which copy to buy, and why not allow schools to only buy the books without offensive language/pictures? There's a time and a place for everything, and I personally don't think that a teacher should have to stop in the middle of reading a Pippi book to explain why it's acceptable for the characters in the book (mainly Pippi) to refer to her father as a "nigger king" but the children aren't allowed to that themselves. Also, Astrid Lindgren was a hack who stole most of her stories, so no respect for her.

      And now I'll stop writing esssays in your comment section.

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    3. Let it be said I like essays, especially those showing up in the comment section! :-)

      As previously stated I view these books/texts in their historical context which I don't feel we have the right to censor. I strongly believe that any of these "texts" should be taken "as is" which does not mean I approve of the semantics. Obviously if an author wrote with the same terminology today the choice of words would be unacceptable.

      To me the value of knowing and understanding the WHY behind any historical text - and that includes racism, as well as sexism, religious bias, etc - outweighs the demand for what is being considered politically correct today. We should learn from the past, not paint it over with fresh diction.

      Now the interesting question might be whether I would want my own children to read these texts as is. As to Huck Finn, yes. As to the rhyme, no.

      Historically the word "nigger" originated as a neutral term referring to black people, but over time became the pejorative expression it is today. Interestingly, if I use the N-word it would be considered racist, yet if African Americans speak it in a camaraderie use of words on the other hand, it is seen as perfectly ok. It's the leap from the etymology to an ascribed meaning of a word/expression which is the crucial point here. Double standards? That's open to discussion. Are some more equal than others? In our minds, sadly, yes.

      Back on topic. I certainly don't condone racism, yet I do not find censorship acceptable either. You may think that changing certain words/expressions is the right thing to do, but where to draw the line? How many people have to feel offended by something that originates 100 or a 1000 years in the past to justify changes, big or small? Personally I find a fair share of historical texts offensive from a female perspective, but I take them all as what they are, namely "lessons from the past".

      We really have to agree to disagree here, but that's ok. I appreciate thought-provoking and fruitful discussions like this one!

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    4. Just a last thing to add: I think there's a difference between total censorship and removal/burning of books. The latter, I don't condone. But, like I said, we're ok with music being censored but books can't be touched? Why not? what's the difference? I'm for the option - if you want to read the original, go for it, but I should have the option to read the non-offensive version. That's my argument.

      The Bible is a very offensive piece of work and you can read a revised/censored version of it and yet nobody's complaining. I'm not trying to take away anybody's right to read a text, but if we don't allow censorship then revised or simplified children's editions shouldn't exist either. Remove all the Penguin Children's books because they are censoring history. I hope you see where I'm getting with this. It's not as simple as just saying "no censorship ever" because that entails a lot more that just the removal of offensive words.

      Also, the etymology of words is a slippery slope. By the time Agatha Christie wrote that book it was considered negative. And like I said in my initial post, if in 100 years' time 'soldier' becomes an offensive word, by all means, remove that from any text I've ever written; use the word fighter, warrior, insurgent (if applicable). Why would I be so hung up on that one word when there are others to replace it. I honestly think it all comes down to a question of ego: "I wrote it this way, leave it so." It just makes no sense to me.

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  4. I agree with Ricki... nonsense AND MORE NONSENSE. The book does have some redeeming value and that is that collectors would pay handsomely for it as there are a lot of Black memoriabilia collectors out there looking for stuff like this.

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    1. I hadn't even thought about collectors in that regard ... my oh my!

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  5. I have to agree with you. As soon as we start changing fiction to be PC, it's only a small step to changing non-fiction and ultimately rewriting history. Orwell showed us one idea of what it could be like when this happens and personally I would rather not experience that. I also think, as you do, that it's important to take into account the socio-political context when you're reading a book and if you can't do that you shouldn't be reading it.

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    1. And just in case there's any backlash - I don't think music should be censored and I think the watershed is bogus. All kids have to do is watch the news or read a newspaper to see horrors worse than many TV shows. And let's face it most kids these days are able to run circles around their parents on the internet.

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    2. A small step indeed. It might appear as a well-meant little change, a small tweak here or there, and next thing you know ... Hello Dystopia!

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