Tag Archives: new york

‘Emperor Jones,’ ‘Huck Finn’ and that ‘n’ word

23 Jan

Last week, I weighed in on the debate about the novel Huckleberry Finn in my colleague Cynthia Haven’s blog The Book Haven. There’s a current debate over a new edition of the novel in which the word “nigger” is replaced by the word “slave.” While the intention is noble, I think it misses the point.

My argument is that those who teach the novel need to be fully aware of what they are teaching, the feelings the novel and the word “nigger” evoke and the specific classroom context they find themselves teaching in.

The debate over the use of the word is not new. My father wrote about it in the column below in 1933. He did not mention Huckleberry Finn, but he referred to the repeated use of the word in Eugene O’Neill‘s  Emperor Jones, the 1933 film version of which featured Paul Robeson in the lead.

“Brutus, or Emperor Jones, an obviously uncultured Negro, rises from obscurity in his nation’s South to the dizzy heights of self-appointed Emperor. He makes his way [as] a Pullman Porter, a gambler, a member of a chain gang, a coal passer on a steamer, a bartered slave – and even leaves a few murders in his wake. In his ascent he encounters no institutions of learning – his vocabulary is broken and ungrammatical from the onset – yet Negroes expect the word ‘Negro’ in his uncultured diction. . . . Harlemites don’t have to go to see Emperor Jones to hear the profuse use of the objectionable word, just pass by any group of street-corner loafers, or listen carefully from your apartment window.”

He noted that in Barbados, it was the speaker  – not the spoken to  – who was looked upon as uncultured when the word was used. He took issue with  one of his fellow New York Age columnists, who was Jamaican, who generalized that in the West Indies the word was used to refer to the black laborer.

“He has made the same mistake so many of us make – that of characterizing a West Indian by his knowledge of his own native brethren. There are scores of tropical islands and a few colonies, and there are also a few noticeably different though minor traits in each island’s group. In Barbados – and we have them – a Negro laborer is known as a “laborer,” and not as a nigger.
Thousands of Negroes must have lived and died in the island of Barbados without the regretful realization that he was a Negro. Without a doubt we have our racial handicaps, but the fact is not repeatedly thrust down our throats. Our financial status – or lack of it – seems our greatest handicap. A printer is a printer not because he is a Negro, but generally because he as not financially able to be what he might consider better . . . ” (I wonder if he was referring to himself.)

One of the comments on the Book Haven discussion, accused those of us who were concerned about teaching and reading Huckleberry Finn of hypocrisy.

The reader said,  “many who defend the unlimited freedom of artists to create graphically sexual and blasphemous photos at public expense in the name of freedom of speech and against the bugabear of censorship (even though these images hurt and offend many) now seem willing to bend the same principles, for what? Because some people will be hurt and offended by the N word? And the people who will be hurt and offended are who? The same people who listen to music whose lyrics use the N word constantly?Anybody besides me see this as a huge contradiction?”

Talk about generalizations! Is this person suggesting that all of the people who are offended by the use of “nigger’ in Huckleberry Finn are not offended by the use of the word in rap lyrics? Black people have been conflicted about the use of the word in the public sphere for decades. Remember when Richard Pryor came back from Africa and vowed never to use the word again?

Robeson himself stopped singing the word in renditions of  Showboat‘s “Ol’ Man River” that he performed in recitals. (He did not change the lyrics when he appeared in Showboat productions.)  In those recitals, he replaced he word “nigger” with “darkies.”   “Colored folks,” has been used in revivals of Showboat since the mid 40s.

Ebenezer was of the mind that if black folks stopped using the word, perhaps others would stop using it too.

“When Negroes cease to include the word ‘nigger’ in their vocabulary, white playwrights may rally to the cause and exclude it from their scripts,” my father writes. “How soon will that be? How soon? We prefer not to think.”

How about 77 years and counting?

The New York Age, October 7, 1933

The ‘racial ills’ of the Episcopal Church

28 Nov

“The Episcopal Church might find an antidote for its racial ills by first cleaning house, and then by directing its evangelistic and missionary activities toward those barbarians in the South who ruthlessly violate the constitutional rights of Negroes, denying them fair and impartial trials when accused of offences they seldom commit. Toward this appalling condition, the Episcopal Church has been noticeably apathetic,” Ebenezer writes.

Here is a link to information on Rev. Alexander McGuire, who founded the African Orthodox Church in response to racism in the Episcopal Church.

The New York Age, February 16, 1935

Missionaries: Stay home and convert your own damn lynchers!

17 Sep

What happened in 1927?

30 Jul

There are some interesting bits of historical information, such as Marcus Garvey’s wife’s divorce complaint and his eventual deportation and  the acquisition of the Schomburg collection by the Carnegie Corporation. Schomburg has particular meaning to me, as it was at the 135th Street library that I found these columns. Didn’t know the Amsterdam News tried to go daily  – for a day. I didn’t know anything about Florence Mills, a well-regarded singer, dancer and comedienne who died of tuberculosis.
Why my father chose June 30, 1934 to reprint a list of 1927 events from another publication is beyond me.

The New York Age, June 30, 2010

‘No reason for jolification’

27 Jul

Long before the Montgomery bus boycott, leaders in Harlem were calling on members of the black community to refrain from spending their money in stores that refused to hire them. Blumstein Department Store was a primary target. In this column it looks as if Koch’s Department store made some concessions, but  Blumstein was a harder case.   “This reminds us to ask: What attitude have the Blumstein taken towards Hitler?” Ebenezer asks. “Are they among the thousands who indicted him recently in Madison Square Garden for his inhuman treatment to non-Aryans? If they are not, we are surprised. If they are, they might ask themselves the questions: Are we not also guilty to a similar attitude towards the Negroes of Harlem?” The reference to “Little Man,” appears to be an attack on William H. Davis, the publisher and part owner of the New York Amsterdam News. It appears that Davis suggested that the advocates of the Blumstein boycott had ulterior motives. My father suggested that Davis sold out for advertising dollars.

The New York Age, June 16, 1934

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