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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Two words that served as class markers

This spring quarter at OLLI I’ll be teaching a course on the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. In the course proposal I submitted, I listed several of the stories I’m likely to assign, including “The Artificial Nigger.” It’s my favorite. The Curriculum Committee approved the course but decided to remove that title from its description in the catalogue.

Rob Casserly, OLLI director, called to tell me of that decision. I said I was fine with it. He went on to say that I wasn’t being asked not to teach the story. I said that was good, because if I couldn’t teach any O’Connor story that has the N word in it, there would be few stories left to teach. He then asked me if I’ll be sending out a syllabus in advance, and when I said yes, he asked if I would add a disclaimer of some sort regarding the word. I knew that the entire conversation, and this part especially, was hard for Rob, and I tried to allay his discomfort by assuring him it wouldn’t be a problem.

O’Connor wrote her fiction between 1946 and 1964, when she died at the age of 39 of disseminated lupus. She was then at the height of her powers. Born and raised in rural Georgia, that is the world she wrote about with fidelity, wonderful humor, and a firm grasp on the social and spiritual forces that drive her characters, few of whom have much self-understanding. Racism ranks high among the social forces, as does class prejudice. O’Connor knows how much they deform the people of her world, real and imaginary. One of the several meanings of the title of the story in question is that the “nigger” is an artificial construct of white people, who created it as a way to bolster their shaky self-esteem.

When I was growing up in New Orleans before the Civil Rights Movement, I never heard the N word spoken in my home. I never heard it spoken by my friends or classmates or in their homes. It was a word lower-class whites used, and we looked down on them. With a few exceptions, O’Connor preserves that class marker.

In my youth, the F word was another class marker. It was used by lower-class people, white and black. Sometimes more socially respectable white men used it among themselves, but never women. Pious people condemned its use. And across the land it was unacceptable in print. When Norman Mailer published “The Naked and the Dead” in 1948, the soldiers slogging through the jungles of the Philippines all said “fug.”

Now, the F word is used in all social circles and in print. I saw no reason to test whether Gary Nelson, my editor, would allow it to appear in the Ashland Tidings, but other publications I get don’t censor it. Indeed, it appears with a tiresome superfluity. So, for instance, in the “Shouts and Murmurs” humor column in the Feb. 3 issue of The New Yorker, Samantha Irby writes, “Is that really too much to f---ing ask?” and “I’m going to have a f---ing stroke.” Supposedly, these uses add to the humor. I don’t see how.

Something’s going on with the F word. I’m not sure what. Perhaps it’s become a marker of sophistication or an assertion of gender equality or maybe just the verbal hiccup it’s long been for lower-class males. Whatever, I find its ubiquity annoying. I’m thinking of swearing off it.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.

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