The “N Word”

In the summer of 2017, my third novel, In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree was released. The book is set during and just after the American Civil War. It’s not, however, a war novel.

The book was reviewed recently by a northern California newspaper. It was a good review; the kind every author hopes to receive for his or her work. In the review, the writer pointed out the fact that the “N word” is used in the novel fifty times, and although I’ve never counted, I’m sure his statement is probably accurate.

The reviewer mentioned it as a warning to readers who may be offended by it, and it’s not the first time my usage of the word in this book has been pointed out. The subject has been broached a few times before, by reviewers, friends, and peers. I’ve been asked if I thought it was necessary to the story. The answer is unquestionably yes. I’ve been asked if I experienced any inner-turmoil with the decision to use it, particularly because I’m not African American. The answer is absolutely no. I never thought twice about it.

Excerpt from In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree:

Henry and Eliza both removed their coats—his wool and threadbare, hers flannel and still in fine condition—and laid them out upon the thin duff of leaves covering the ground. Eliza was able to sit upright, and she unwrapped the small cotton package that Master Cromwell had given them while Henry lay on his side looking up at her.

“I hear there’s plenty of payin’ work, farmin’ up in Wisconsin. They say a man can make enough to buy his own piece of land, if’n he’s willin’ to work hard,” Henry said.

“You hear that from Nathaniel Clement, too?”

“He says his brother is up there in a place called Wooshara or Washara or somethin’ and—”

“It’s something, Henry. How many times do I have to tell you?”

“Yes, ma’am, it’s Wooshara County or something. We weren’t all lucky enough to grow up a house-nigger.”

“Don’t call me that. You know I don’t like it. Besides, I’m trying to teach you, is all. You get up there around all those educated northern folk, you want to be speaking proper don’t you?”

Excerpt from In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree:

“Master Townley wants everyone to help with the bucket line,” Eliza said breathlessly. John looked up at the big house, which was fully engulfed in flames. It was at least three hundred yards away but it lit Henry and John’s little porch like sunset.

“Ain’t no bucket line going to save that place. Did the family get out?”

Eliza shook her head. “Mathilda and Old George neither.” She began to weep and Henry took her hand.

“Good,” John said bitterly, then added: “Course not Mathilda and Old George—that’s a sad shame—but I don’t feel a lick of sorrow for Master Abbott nor none of his folk. That man’s already in hell, if there is such a place. And for his sake I’m hopin’ there is. Now I’m quittin’ this place. You two comin’ with me?”

“Where are you going to go, John?” Eliza asked nervously.

Henry started to retort, “If’n they catch you—”

“Then they can goddamn kill me,” John said angrily. “There ain’t nothing left for them to take but my life, an’ that’s all they’re gettin’ if they catch me. An’ I tell you I ain’t givin’ that up without a fight. Now you’re a long sight from that wet-nosed boy they shackled me with six years back but you’re still a young man an’ you ain’t broke yet. But you will be. You’ll be a broken down ol’ nigger jes like me, an’ Eliza’ll jes be a sad recollection that you weep over on cold nights when you think no one can hear.”

I was aware from the start that some people may not like my use of the word. After all, it’s an offensive word; an ugly word. It’s a six letter symbol of racism and hatred. People should be offended by it.  In this case, however, I don’t believe it should be simply because I had the audacity to use it (I assure you, it took none).

What happened in the United States and it’s territories during the 19th century was an outrageous and disgraceful affront to everything human and decent. A good portion of this nation was built on slavery and genocide. Having said that, I want you to know that I don’t hate this country, I love it, and I consider myself a patriot, but I’m a modern patriot and the truth is what it is. With all of the progress we’ve made we still have a good way to go before this place is what it needs to be for everyone. Institutions are hard to change, wounds can take a long time to heal, and scars can be deep. It’s been my experience that people are sadly under-educated in a great deal of what transpired during this period. I wasn’t about to sugar-coat it to make it more palatable, and I won’t apologize for that. I think we do way too much of that these days—both sugar-coating and apologizing, but that’s another post. The fact is, in addition to the “N word” you’ll also find injun, wagon-burner, prairie-nigger, red savage, and other terms that are every bit as offensive as the subject of this post.

Keep in mind that I’m not making an argument here as to the word’s usage in daily language. I’ll leave that debate for others. I can only speak for myself, and it’s not part of my casual vocabulary and never will be. I’ve read a bit on the subject and the discussion can get very heated. There is a book by Jabari Asim titled The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t and Why and an interesting article by Brandon Simeo Starkey titled If you truly knew what the N-word meant to our ancestors, you’d NEVER use it. There are a lot of other worthy reads on the subject as well, if you’re interested, but again, it’s usage in the American vernacular is not what this particular post is about.

I choose to write about things I’m passionate about, and although I write fiction, a goodish portion of the stories I create are firmly rooted in reality. I’ve written fiction about the disease that took my mother, and I’ve written fiction about drug addiction—an issue which has affected my life and the lives of my family in a very profound way.

My biological father’s ancestry was mostly Native American and I’ve always been interested in Native American history and culture. Through my life I’ve also been both appalled and fascinated by the outrageous and unforgivable evils humans are capable of inflicting on one another. In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree was born of these things. I wanted to be as historically accurate as possible, and that meant laying bare the atrocities committed on both African Americans and Native Americans during the building of this country. And I mean in the most naked way. During the months I spent writing this novel, I frequently finished my day feeling drained and wretched. It’s often harsh, bleak, and for me at least, heartbreaking. However, like most stories worth telling, there is also beauty, heroism, and love to be found. As a nation, we need to be more honest when it comes to American history in education. We should be more accurately teaching young people about the dark parts of our history in order to properly deal with the residue it’s left on our present…and possibly our future.

In the end I believe context means everything, and after the final page is turned I sincerely hope I’ve been successful in communicating the greater takeaways in this story.

Excerpt from In the Shadow of the Hanging Tree:

“This nation’s prosperity and growth is being challenged by those ungrateful red-skinned savages out there. We offer them agreeable terms; we take them in and generously share the fruits of our labor with them. At this very moment they are cooking with wheat flour that was farmed and milled by white men. They’re hunting with rifles we gifted to them to make their hunting easier, and they’re wrapped in blankets manufactured by white workers. All we’ve asked in return is to be able to live peaceably on this land that God has ordained us to dwell in.” He stood and paced the length of the tent, then turned and leveled a finger at John. “But the red man is not peaceable. Not at all. Most particularly the Sioux and Cheyenne. Long before the first white man ventured west, the Indians were making war on each other. The Sioux drove the weaker tribes away from their hunting grounds, murdering the men and boys, and taking women and young girls captive to use as breeding stock to strengthen their numbers. More recently, the Cheyenne and Arapaho have aligned themselves with the Sioux, and together they’ve been raiding innocent settlers and attacking emigrants on the trails. For the last year they’ve rampaged through the countryside, murdering entire families only to steal a few head of livestock—they’re abducting women and carrying them off to face God only knows what horrors. Two months ago, somewhere near a thousand braves attacked Camp Rankin and, after indiscriminately killing soldier and citizen, burned most of the town to the ground.” He stood on the opposite side of the table from John and placed his hands flat on the wood, leaning over until his face was just inches away from John’s. His golden eyes blazed and his voice was thick and full of emotion. “They skinned some of their victims, John. Good and decent God-fearing people whose only crime had been the desire to make a better life for themselves.” Frank Picton raised one hand and slammed it back down on the table. “THESE SAVAGES MUST BE BROKEN OR ERADICATED!”

Michael A. McLellan 4-13-2019

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  1. Mischenko

    This post says so much and it’s needed. I did note the language in my review of your book because many are sensitive to it, which I do understand. I hate the “N” word and always have. It’s hard to read, but has to be used when portraying this time in history to make it accurate. So many authors have been labeled racist because of the use of words in their books. That just isn’t fair.

    “As a nation, we need to be more honest when it comes to American history in education.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s become common to cover everything up and I can’t understand why. How can we learn from our history if we do that? It needs to be exposed so we can teach children that it’s wrong. It’s the only way to make change for the future.

    I’d love to reblog this with your permission. Thank you for sharing it.

    1. michaelamclellan Post

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