The Shifting Sands of Political Correctedness   Leave a comment

In The Roman Hat Mystery, the 1929 debut novel of the genre-setting Ellery Queen series, nobody mourns the victim.  Even the police feel that the world is a better place without lawyer Monte Field around, although they remain obliged to bring the killer to justice.  The motive?  To end an ongoing blackmail.  Seems the perpetrator, an up and coming young actor poised to marry into a prominent family, has a secret, and Field knows it.  This is a secret so powerful, so damning, so threatening, that this charming young man would pay huge sums to keep it quiet, and in  the end murder the only other person who knew it.  What secret was this, that would drive such a man to risk everything?  This is what Field knew: the killer had a drop of negro blood running in his veins.  Poor man, in the words of a police sergeant, he was ‘tainted’ and if that information escaped then both his career and his future nuptials would become past tense.  Try to consider the effect of releaasing such a story, today.

Joseph Conrad – a personal favorite author of mine – was not one to indulge in racial prejudice.  Indeed, coming from Polish nobility and sailing to the farthest ports of the world as an English sea-captain; he would be ill-served to harbor such grudges.  The 1897 The Nigger of the Narcissus is not about racism; it is about the effect of a destabilizing element on a social structure.  James Wait, an east-african sailor on board the Narcissus – a sailing vessel England-bound from the Orient, contracts tuberculosis and dies, but not before polarizing the crew, some of whom are willing to put Wait’s issues ahead of the survival of the vessel.  The N-Word was used by Conrad not as a perjorative but as a descriptor; the story pits deeply nuanced characters against each other in the setting of a cataclysmic south Pacific typhoon  The title, however, stands and has precluded this work – considered by many to be one of Conrad’s finest – from taking it’s rightful place in today’s High School reading list.  Pity.

In the essay “Stranger in the Village ,” included in the 1955 compilation Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin makes comfortable use uf the N-Word.  Obviously, he has every right to do that, but he doesn’t  wield it in the abrasive, in-your-face manner of a modern-day rapper.  Instead he uses it to make a point, and keeping in mind the era it is a powerful point.  Baldwin, a masterful writer who just happened to be born black, often wrote of such matters, and that was in the pre-MLK days when ‘an uppity nigger’ was likely to be targeted.  Read the novel Giovanni’s Room – you won’t know the author was African-American, you’ll only know he knew how to string words together to effectively convey ideas.

So what’s the point?  In each case, racial differences were used for literary purposes, and each one was different.  Also, each one would raise eyebrows were it to be used today.  So my point is this:  it is only in the context of the reader’s time-frame that these distinctions have any meaning, and the passage of time will likely alter – if not erase – those original meanings.

Recently I saw on Facebook, purportedly from a Rape Crisis Center, (on the internet… One never knows, do one?) an attempt to recast the famous Alfred Eisenstadt photo of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on VJ Day.  The writer’s stated intent was to establish that this was really a case of sexual assault, charging that the woman (who has never been conclusively identified, although several have claimed that role) was not entirely enthralled by the incident.  The sailors, marines, and nurses marching in that parade had all been given the biggest reprieve of all:  they had been spared the anticipated apocalypse of the invasion of Japan, instead being told to go home and resume their lives.  I would judge this an acceptable reason to celebrate, and where better to party than Times Square?  But that beggars my question.

Is it legitimate to take an iconic image and, I would guess through some kind of linguistic jiggery-pokery, give it an entirely new significance that is irrelevant to it’s own time?  Can you take a photograph – or a literary work – from the context of the author’s era, and with a straight face impart an entirely new meaning?

So, Dear Reader, what thinkest thou?

Posted October 13, 2012 by JD Rule

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