The n—- word is something I cannot utter. In writing this book, I struggled with whether to include it in my portrayal of 1960s Alabama. Let’s be real: many people used it freely back then, even as some do now, but did it belong in my book? Would it send the wrong message? What a tragedy it would be if I alienated readers or implied that the offensiveness of the word didn’t matter to me, since the book’s intent was just the opposite: to amplify the conversation about race and to promote tolerance and understanding.
During the book’s development I discussed this thorny issue with my editor at University of Alabama Press, Dan Waterman. Should I delete it from dialogue or at least modify it with a less demeaning version of the word? But in the sixties many white people didn’t censor their speech. It would be laughable to pretend otherwise, Dan suggested.
A scholarly examination of the word’s history solidified the answers I sought. In The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why, Jabari Asim concludes that only historical or artistic context constitutes justifiable use.
Despite my revulsion toward the word, it seemed impossible to convey the ugliness I witnessed growing up in the racist south without employing this ugliest of terms. In the end, I reserved its use to a handful of scenes that passed a visceral checkpoint: In this instance, would it be laughable to pretend that this character exercised the sensitivity to clean up his speech?
This page shows my sister’s reaction to the ugly taunts of white boys who told her she had “n—- lips.”