Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Conversation about Words

In the course of writing my novel, Grand River and Joy, I thought a lot about the labels we use to group people--and how we feel about these labels when they apply to us versus Others. Labels as basic and non-ethnic as boys, women, teenagers, tenants can take on extra shadings depending on the context and tone of voice, and they do in the first chapter of my book.

Grand River and Joy is about Jews and blacks in Detroit in the 1960s--just as the civil rights era was shifting into the Black Power era, and the terms colored and Negro were still common when speaking of an African-American person. Somewhere around the middle of the book, the main character, Harry Levine, says to his tenant, Curtis Evans,
"No one knows what to call your people anymore. Negro, black, colored?" The two men have been drinking whiskey in a cold basement, and it's the middle of the night, so conversation is a little looser than it might have been under normal circumstances, but Curtis says, "Best thing, call me a person. That’s what I like to be called. Or a man.” “But I mean, your race,” Harry answers. And then Curtis says, "You asked me. I’m telling you. You only need the label when you’re talking about me. It’s the talking to me that matters.”

My friend Phil Herbst was a guide through the difficult territory of ethnic words in my book. About 10 years ago, Phil published a book called
The Color of Words: An Encyclopediac Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States. As described by Phil, it is intended as "a companion to anyone who wishes to know more about the meanings and bias or potential offensiveness of ethnic words." This book is a treasure, and this blog is intended to feature its contents and to prompt a conversation about these challenging words. As Phil writes, "Meanings are often flexible, shifting, and ambivalent, reflecting a diversity of users, targets, identities, and social perspectives. To further complicate matters, a group will not necessarily agree on what it wishes to be named, if it wishes to be named--or even grouped--at all. Nor do many individuals (consider, for example, persons of multiracial background) identify with any particular ethnic group, or any single group." As he says, "Ethnic naming is often a dicey business."

What I will be doing on this blog is posting a word a week from Phil's book (with his permission, of course), accompanied with his definitions, usage notes, and commentary. Many of us blunder about with these words (see Harry, above); I certainly do, and I
hope you will enter the conversation with your own insights, in a spirit of openness and tolerance.

If you're thinking to label this blog or my intent as political correctness, fine. I see political correctness as a long-overdue attempt to be sensitive about the language one uses for others--not as a conversation stopper. But in a future post, I'll present Phil's far-more-thoughtful and in-depth explanation of that label. Stay tuned.