by Lael Morgan
Editor’s note: It probably goes without saying, and yet I’m going to say it anyway, that readers should be forewarned the post below on the use of coarse racial language in historical accounts contains coarse racial language. The editor hopes Lael’s piece will open a dialogue on this important historiographical issue. Readers may send comments—either for publication on this blog or not, please specify—to rcoen (at) uw.edu.
Last week I got a query from a fellow publisher wondering whether we should modify ethnic names in older published books when issuing a new edition. He was talking about language in common usage at the time which might be offensive to today’s readers, like changing the terms from Indians to Native Americans and Chinamen to Chinese. In this particular case, he noted, the book was non-fiction and without dialogue.
Were he to alter it in the name of political correctness, he was then considering a statement on the copyright page to the effect that the estate of the author had approved the modification of certain terms “used by the author, which were common language at the time but may be offensive to readers today.” He also suggested adding, “These changes do not alter the meaning of the original text.”
However my question is, “Will they?”
And the problem becomes even broader in the case of historians employing actual dialogue from non-fiction books from the past that are well-documented. No problem with “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” But what about something like “I love those niggers. And I love their music.” Or, worse yet, the diary record of an explorer mired in marshy tundra country described on his map (and all the maps by USGS I used the first half of my life in Alaska) as “nigger heads” but currently dubbed “tundra tussocks.” There is something melodic about “tundra tussocks.” Somehow, “Damn the tundra tussocks! Full speed ahead!” does not work for me.
Most news reporters have help with modern-day political correctness. Once a year the Associated Press issues a style book with the terms considered politically correct that we can all use with impunity for the year ahead. It also issues interim statements of same. Having had a long career in journalism, I’ve watched the term “Negro” changed to “African American” and now to “black” without a capital “N” due mostly to the lobbying of strong ethic politicians. There are Eskimos who are demanding that word be stricken because it means “eaters of raw fish.” (I suspect 1.2 million sushi eaters may stop that movement cold). But that does not solve the historian’s dilemma.
What are you thinking?