Removing racist words 'neuters the past', argues Colin Grant

Colin Grant Colin Grant is the author of a biography about Marcus Garvey

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In this opinion piece, author and BBC producer Colin Grant makes a plea not to erase racist language from our shared and occasionally shameful history.

The BBC's treatment of Radio Devon DJ David Lowe seems to demonstrate both a failure of duty of care towards an employee and also a myopia and lamentable timidity when it comes to the subject of race.

David Lowe may have inadvertently played an offensive record during his set, but that song should not be removed from the BBC's playlist. Such a decision would be an act of cultural vandalism and would close off a portal to an uncomfortable and disgraceful chapter of our past.

A few years ago, searching for a song to illustrate a talk on the controversy over Negro with a Hat, the title of my biography of Marcus Garvey, I descended into the bowels of the BBC's Bush House and made my way to the grams library. Scanning the files, I tapped in the details of All Coons Look Alike to Me, a popular late 19th-century ragtime song recorded by black American entertainer Ernest Hogan.

I found the single and put it on the turntable. As the record crackled into life, it was immediately apparent that something was terribly wrong. The line "all coons look alike to me" had been changed to "all colts look alike to me". I was much more outraged over substituting the word "colts" into the song than I would have been before writing Negro with a Hat.

Negro with a Hat dust jacket

I had first come across the title for my book at a photographic exhibition, Make Life Beautiful: The Dandy in History, that toured the UK in 2005. The portraits were mostly as you might imagine: alluring, black and white images of Cecil Beaton, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and company.

But halfway round the gallery, I was shocked by one print - an anonymous black man wearing a fedora. Underneath the photo the caption read: 'Negro with Hat'. Another portrait by the same photographer was mounted beside it, showing a white man in fancy dress wearing a theatrical turban. Its title: 'Man with Hat'.

I objected to the odious title and the inference that a negro was not a man, and made my views plain to the curator. But he argued that the title was historically specific and couldn't be changed. And further that when, just over a century ago, liberal white photographer F. Holland Day placed his camera in the service of the anonymous black model, the elegant portrait of the 'negro' was intended to be formal and respectful.

'Negro' today is a charged word, considered a term of abuse. But back at the start of the 20th century it was embraced by black people as a badge honour; so that Negro with a Hat became the perfect title for the controversial and polemical black activist Marcus Garvey.

Language helps to explain our past. Are publishers likely to review Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and delete all the many references to n****r, as was proposed by Alabama's NewSouth Books in 2011? I hope not.

Deleting outdated and insulting archaic words may remove the offense but also neuters the past and makes it more difficult to explain the present: to illuminate the domain assumptions that underscore contemporary prejudicial thinking whether expressed or mumbled.

By all means, let us police and contextualise the use of the N-word. But let us not erase the past and with it a word that is an example of a historical specificity that is absolute.

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