|Image copyright D.C. THOMSON & Co., Ltd|
Further to my recent post about the exclusion of a black character called 'PEANUT' from a facsimile of the first BEANO, I thought I'd expand on the topic a little. Someone sent me a 'cut and paste' of a newspaper article (DAILY TELEGRAPH I think) about a facsimile of the first DANDY Annual which was printed back around 2006. The facsimile (which I have) has a strip called SMARTY GRANDPA (who looks for all the world like GRANDPA BROON and is drawn by DUDLEY D. WATKINS), wherein he helps a group of singers that he refers to as 'NIGGER MINSTRELS'.
Now before anyone has an apoplectic fit over my use of what is nowadays referred to as 'the N-word', I am merely reporting the facts of the case and, in regard to the afore-mentioned Dandy Annual, not using the word with the intention to insult or offend anyone. D.C. THOMSON caught a little flak for not editing the word from the speech balloons, but this is what their spokesman said in response back in 2006:
"Obviously, sensitivity at the time did not consider this to be in-flammatory at all. It is a true facsimile copy and we don't feel it is something we should edit.
The position that we have adopted is that this annual is of its time. We would not have published this word in the Dandy of today.
We should celebrate the fact that we live in a time where such ideas around race are no longer seen as appropriate and our society does not condone this kind of language.
But if anything, it is promoting racial harmony. Smarty Grandpa earns money for his pals for a slap-up feed because they couldn't do it. I don't think he says anything that can be considered racially prejudiced."
And the spokesman is right. Back in 1939 in Britain, the word 'nigger' didn't have the same inflammatory, derogatory connotations that it had in some parts of the United States. The word has a long and convoluted history, and basically derives from the word 'negro', which itself was derived from the word 'niger' and innocently referred to people of a dark-skinned complexion. People of the Southern United States pronounced the word 'nigra', and it was their dialect that that made the word sound like 'nigger'. The word hasn't always been seen as pejorative either, sometimes being used in an endearing way, depending on exactly which part of the world one lived. Even negroes at one time used the word without perceiving it as demeaning, as many negroes do today - though they usually pronounce it as 'nigga' or 'niggah'. "In many African-American neighbourhoods," says ARTHUR K. SPEARS (in Diverse Issues In Higher Education, 2006) , "nigga is simply the most common term used to refer to any male, of any race or ethnicity." "The point" he later says, is that the word (nigga) is "evaluatively neutral in terms of its inherent meaning; it may express positive, neutral or negative attitudes."
But should we use it - even when examining its history in posts like this - if it causes offense to some people? I certainly wouldn't refer to a black person by the name, especially not face-to-face, though simply out of politeness and regard for their feelings, not out of fear. But offense is a strange animal, to be sure. I know two Muslim shopkeepers, who sometimes called me (and other customers) 'honky'. Were they being offensive and did their use of the word reflect a negative attitude to white people? To be honest, I didn't care. I took it in good humour, and if I wasn't offended then no harm done, regardless of the intention of the speaker. Perhaps someone else would have been offended, but that illustrates the problem.
For example, the word 'Jock' is often used by English people to describe Scottish people. I don't view it as an insult, but I know of some Scots who do. (In fact, I heard tell of one English cartoonist who referred to two visiting Scots as "two f*cking Jocks" when announcing to someone (I forget whether it was at an event or elsewhere) that two Scottish gentlemen had dropped in to see him. He was unaware that the duo had assumed they were meant to follow him (thinking they were still standing where he'd left them, out of earshot), and obviously used the description in a pejorative manner. So how do you define a word which can be intended to be offensive (depending on context and tone) or used with no malicious intent at all?
Should a word be 'censored' because you take offense at it, even when no offense was intended? And if someone else doesn't perceive any offense in the word - even when it's being used in reference to them - just how do we decide? Should we allow those who are seemingly determined to take offense at the drop of a hat (and yes, such people exist) to define and dictate to the rest of society how it should speak or think? (And I'm not talking here about swear words where there's usually a consensus of opinion on them.)
However, don't misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting for a second that use of the N-word is acceptable in today's society in contemporary times - I'll leave that discussion to others. But when literature or movies from a different era, where certain words that are 'of their time' and which weren't viewed as (or intended to be) offensive are re-presented in their original form, then in the interests of historical accuracy, their contextual integrity should be preserved.
In comics, there's a certain visual shorthand which is often called into play. In English comics, visiting Scotsmen are usually portrayed as wearing kilts, sporting Tam O'Shanters, and clutching gnarled walking sticks. There are some Scots who find such 'shortbread tin' depictions offensive, believe it or not. (The same Scots, ironically, who wear kilts at weddings.) I'm not one of them. (And, incidentally, in Scottish comics, visiting Englishmen are usually depicted as being snooty, nose-in-the-air, well-dressed snobs, so at least there's balance.) Back in 1938 in Britain, 'Peanut', while arguably a racial stereotype, wasn't intended to be a racist stereotype, and I believe there's a difference. I'm sure that most black people who are aware of this wouldn't be offended by the character in his historical context, and we shouldn't patronise them by assuming that they automatically would be.
Historical items should be viewed in their original context, and pandering to well-meaning but deluded, politically-correct numpties who wish to sweep anything that might cause offense under the carpet is what's truly offensive in situations like this. Apparently, in the case of Smarty Grandpa, the newspaper article reported only three people being offended by the facsimile Dandy Annual, one of them from The Glasgow Anti-Racist Alliance, who probably only became aware of the book when approached for comment and whose response was only to be expected. (The other two were a Jamaican and his white wife.) These people really should get a life - there are far worse things in the world to take offense at than a reprint of an old comic strip.
Another thing that occurs to me is that, like myself, some collectors who purchased BEANO - 80 YEARS Of FUN, will have done so because a 'facsimile' of the first issue was advertised as being included. However, as the comic was missing four of its original 28 pages and was digitally manipulated to delete Peanut from the masthead, it's not a true facsimile and therefore constitutes false advertising. It would be a different matter if it had been listed as an 'abridged, altered, near-facsimile' (or some such description), but to call it a facsimile when it's really not amounts to nothing more than deceit, regardless of the reasons for the makeover.
Who's with me? Say "Aye!" (Though feel free to comment even if your response is a resounding "Nay!")