Style is born, I told my students the other day, when writers lose themselves in writing they admire. Gay, urban, sex-loving Jewish Allen Ginsberg could and did recite all 193 lines of straight, bucolic, prudish, Christian John Milton’s 17th century elegy, “Lycidas.” Clicking my way to Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl,” I added, “And see—Ginsberg’s style is unmistakable!”
I read the beginning aloud. I’d forgotten it contains the phrase, “through the negro streets.” As I read, I wondered, “will some student report me to the Dean for saying an offensive, racist word?” I asked myself how often I think of a writer whom I wish to mention, then find, while I’m already reading aloud, some term that could get twisted into a meaning neither I nor the poet intend.
The problem’s worse when I teach Maya Angelou and Mark Twain, both of whose writings contain words this journal probably won’t print. Consider how much the euphemism “n-word” undermines their efforts. Angelou’s writing cannot be separated from her experience as a black person growing up in the Jim Crow South any more than Mark Twain’s experience as a white person growing up in a slave-owning family can be separated from his experience as a writer. These writers have the right to expect readers not to censor their language. The words of those who have the literary power for these uncensored words to inspire sadness and joy in all of us should not be expurgated.
But if I use the word, and if a student complains, any discussion I might try to have about how I and the class vicariously experience the sadness, the terrors of either of their lives, about how I and the class, through our common humanity, feel identified with their writers, would be rejected—and would be rejected by a number of New York Times journalists who are writing, and printing, things like, “I don’t ever want to hear that word come out of a white person’s mouth.”
For writers, censorship and bowdlerizing remain signs of disrespect. I do worse than dishonoring writers by euphemizing their words. I create a fantasy dogma in which black people feel one thing and white people feel another, neither can understand the other, and both are filled with fear. The point of literature gets lost. Forbidden words become powerful, fetishized.
I know what Allen Ginsberg would say: “America, why are your libraries full of tears?”
Melissa Knox’s recent writing appears in Another Chicago Magazine, Image Journal, and WOW. Her book, Divorcing Mom: A Memoir of Psychoanalysis, was published by Cynren in 2019. Read more of her writing here: https://melissaknox.com