Ariel story leads to Radio 4 commission

An American student paints over a racist slur outside a school in 1957 An American student paints over a racist slur outside a school in 1957

Related Stories

A comment piece written for Ariel about racism and language has led to a Radio 4 programme.

Colin Grant argued that erasing racist words, whether found in literature or lyrics, effectively 'neuters the past'.

The BBC producer thought that the subject of race was often dealt with 'lamentable timidity' and used the treatment of BBC Radio Devon's David Lowe - who inadvertently played an offensive version of The Sun Has Got Its Hat On - as an example.

Start Quote

I think it's an ambitious programme and it's going to attract attention, some of it will be bad. I'm sure there will be people who will be offended”

End Quote Colin Grant Producer

One concern was that knee-jerk reactions to such songs from the past could lead to their removal from the BBC 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,' he wrote last month.

'Touched a nerve'

Having had a few weeks to reflect on the impact of his words, Grant believes the article 'touched a nerve or tapped into a vein of thought that hadn't been expressed. This is a subject that people don't like to talk about,' he tells Ariel from his home in Brighton.

Encouraged by his colleagues in radio and music, he emailed some Radio 4 heads, including controller Gwyneth Williams and commissioning editor Mohit Bakaya.

The editor responded within a 'nanosecond' and invited him in to discuss his ideas. During the meeting, it took Bakaya another '30 seconds' to commission Grant to produce an Archive on 4 programme exploring the use of the N-word.

'It's a very contentious programme and I think the BBC is very brave to put it out,' says Grant. 'It's encouraging, actually. It reminds me that [the BBC] hasn't lost its sense of ambition, because I think it's an ambitious programme and it's going to attract attention, some of it will be bad. I'm sure there will be people who will be offended.'

Colin Grant Colin Grant says the BBC is 'brave' to commission the programme

A History of the N-Word, narrated by Ella Allfrey, looks at the evolution of this racist epithet from its beginnings in 1619 as the mispronunciation of the Spanish word for black, 'negro', to its use in hip-hop music today.

'The N-word has a long and troubled history,' explains Grant, who produced and wrote the programme. 'Its spelling has been changed to "nigga"; it has been abbreviated to "nig"; and sometimes excised altogether from historical texts. But its power to offend has never diminished. It is among the most contentious and hated words in the English language.'

Not ancient history

Grant finds plenty of examples in the archive - some remarkably recent - of how the word has been used in police culture and the political arena.

In 1990, for instance, John Taylor, a black man, was put forward as a Conservative candidate to run for a seat in the House of Commons.

Grant says: 'One of the party members of the Conservatives went on BBC radio and said: "We have 250-odd candidates. Why did we have to choose a nigger from Birmingham?"'

While this was over 20 years ago, only last month a police commissioner in the United States used the same racist slur in reference to Barack Obama.

The offensive version of The Sun Has Got Its Hat On will also be played in the documentary and talked about in its historical context.

This material is punctuated by contemporary interviews, and a poet writing her response to the N-word.

Stuck to guns

It's been a tight turnaround for the producer, who admits to working non-stop since the commission - 'I'm going to have to sleep for a week,' he admits.

The process of making the programme hasn't been totally trouble-free, but Grant is happy with the final edit.

He gives credit to Bakaya for not shying away from what is still a very contentious subject. '[Bakaya] thought it was important to have a grown-up and rigorous and robust enquiry about the nature of the N-word and why it still causes offence and why it still makes people nervous.'

He adds: 'I've stuck to my guns, really, and we have had quite a few, shall we say, frank discussions. I think we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. I would say Hallelujah.'

  • A History of the N-word, Saturday June 21, Radio 4. You can listen to the programme after it airs by going to Archive on 4's website.

More on This Story

Related Stories

Features

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.