I must have looked at that word on the first page, third paragraph of my novel, PROVENANCE, at least 100 times.
A young black man, caught after dark in a sundown town, is running for his life.
“We’re Richard Whitaker’s boys, you know us!” he shouts over his shoulder as he tries to escape what could be a fatal consequence for just arriving in town on the late ferry. The racist sheriff responds,
“Then you know! No niggers ‘llowed in town after sundown.”
There it is, the N-word. For the time, 1909, the place—a fictional coastal town in southern Virginia—and the situation, the language is authentic. However, in today’s still racially challenged world, like other racial slurs from our recent past, the word still stings. Today, it is not politically correct to use the N-word; I debated whether to change that word to one that was more palatable, more attuned to today’s sensitivity. I decided to leave it in because it is so visceral, to serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go when it comes to matters of race.
There are still places where people of color are considered a threat like they were in sundown towns throughout the this country; though the blatant signs once posted with the message, “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on You In (fill in the name of the town) are thankfully a thing of the past.
There are still people who hurl the N-word around to demean and hopefully destroy. Though not my intention, some will say I perpetuate the power of the word by using it. Outside of this literary context I believe that may be a valid argument. However, in PROVENANCE, my novel about a family’s determination to survive and thrive despite the overt racism that scarred the early 20th century, my goal is to demonstrate that the N-word is powerless in the face of self-determination. It becomes meaningless if you realize it defines not one single thing about you.