When I was in grammar school in racist South Carolina, the kids had keen ears for inappropriate language.
If Butch Belligerent threatened to whip your Butt, you didn’t run to the teacher accusing Butch of threatening violence. You went to her and said, “Butch said an ugly word.”
“Butt” referred to a then-unmentionable part of the anatomy, so the teacher would be properly outraged. She might make Butch stay in at recess, a punishment you would welcome because you didn’t want to run into a vengeful Butch out on the school grounds.
In those days, you’d never say “Butch used the ‘N’ word.” Nobody would know what ‘N word’ meant, but everybody was familiar with the word the ‘N’ stood for; it was part of everyday Southern parlance. Sometimes it was used contemptuously. At others, it was just the generic way of referring to the people we now call African-Americans or blacks. A country kid down South wouldn’t know what else to call his dark-skinned neighbor.
Today, if you use the “N word,” you’d better look around to see who’s listening. It is on the black list of everybody who has access to the media.
Ask Paula Deen.
I don’t know much about the lady, but I have dined at her restaurant in Savannah, and I can tell you that somebody in that place can flat cook.
Paula was born in 1947, by which time I had used the “N” word more times than I could count. But when she used it, the pundits began taking her apart. You’d think she had taken the Lord’s name in vain, except that nobody gets upset over that any more.
It’s been a long, long time since I used the “N” word, except maybe to give a pedantic explanation of what it means and why it’s offensive. A large chunk of my fellow citizens consider it insulting, and for good reason.
Deen is a celebrity cook who has a devoted following among folks who cotton to Southern-style cooking. A Caucasian woman who had been manager of one of her restaurants was suing her for $1.2 million. She charged Paula’s outfit with workplace discrimination. I take no position with regard to Paula’s liability in the suit. Let the facts speak.
But the National Enquirer got hold of a video in which she confessed to telling racist jokes, using the “N” word and planning a slavery-themed wedding.
Fox News, on its Internet website, called them “shocking admissions.”
Put me on the stand, Fox News, and I will not prevaricate. I have indeed told, and laughed at, racist jokes, and I have indeed used the ‘N’ word.
If you shot everybody down South who had engaged in such shocking behavior, you would destroy an entire generation. The “N” word is embedded in our history and culture. I once asked a black friend what he called Brazil nuts when he was a boy. He grinned and answered: “The same thing you did.”
In the beginning, it was just the natural Southern way of pronouncing “Negro,” which is a legitimate descendant of the Latin word “niger” for “black.” It became offensive when people began to use it to belittle and insult the people to whom it was applied.
Southern society was long divided on black/white lines, and for most of our history we didn’t cross those lines socially. So we didn’t get to know our black neighbors well enough to feel the hurt they felt when we carelessly used racist epithets. As we came to know one another as friends and social peers, we began to remove the epithets from our language – some of us more readily than others.
My son Rick used to work side by side with a black man who became his close friend. They called each other by the “N” word, using it affectionately. But his friend – an amateur boxer – would never tolerate it among casual white acquaintances.
As for Paula’s plans for a slavery-themed wedding, chalk that up to poor judgment and deplorable insensitivity. What she was planning was a wedding on an antebellum theme. Slavery was an integral part of the antebellum Southern world. A big wedding without slaves to wait on the aristocratic attendees would not be antebellum at all.
It reminded me of a locally written musical commemorating the centennial of Roanoke, Va., my home for a decade. The story spanned the era of segregated schools, and the scene involving kids in a one-room school could not, with historical accuracy, have included African-American kids. The writers finessed this by having black children looking through open windows as they joined the white kids in song. We sometimes have to use ingenuity to depict our dual heritage.
It also reminded me of the protests, a generation ago, by African-American students at Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va. They objected to a traditional ball in which the young men wore Confederate uniforms.
I wondered what they would expect from an institution named for two patron saints of Southern history, where Confederate General Robert E. Lee now lies in final repose and where George Washington’s bequest still pays for part of their education. Many people, it seems, expect the white South to look back on its history with shame instead of with pride.
I look upon Paula Deen with neither shame nor pride. She’s a great cook, and I can follow her recipes without subscribing to her attitudes toward others.
It seems to me that the best way to deal with her kind of insensitivity is to ignore it. It is already frowned upon by the current generation, both North and South. I hope it will have faded into the historical woodwork with the passing of my generation and hers.
Readers may email Gene Owens at WadesDixieco@AOL.com. For more of Gene’s writings, go to www.wadesdixieco.com.
Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson.