The Problem We All Live With

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on August 25, 2011

The White House has decided to go with candor and frankness in having a particular Norman Rockwell painting hang on the walls just outside the Oval Office. Its decision to hang this painting is to be applauded.

I recognize that White House art is not the pressing subject of the day, but it is worth noting just how important it is to frankly face the stark fact that once upon a time, not so long ago, racial relations in the United States were tremendously ugly. That “America’s vilest racial epithet” should have been issued–and was issued–against a little girl who simply wanted to go to school is nothing short of appalling and despicable, and does not fail to shock even those of us who are intimately familiar with American history. But sometimes, there is nothing wrong with being shocked, and indeed, if one spends all of one’s time trying to keep from being uncomfortable, one may also end up uneducated as well.

The title of this post refers to the name of Rockwell’s painting. It accurately describes the problem of racism–even today. Yes, we have made tremendous strides when it comes to race relations, and yes, the election of an African-American President ought to be celebrated even by those who disagree with that President politically, given that that it shows us that America has come a long way since the days when a little girl could be called the n-word merely for wanting to be educated. But of course, racism still exists, and it needs to be confronted. Confronting it by hanging a painting in the White House whose image is designed to unsettle is a small act. But it is a positive and important one.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this story reminds me of the effort to bowdlerize Huckelberry Finn by replacing uses of the n-word with the word “slave.” The aim was to make Huckleberry Finn more accessible to readers by removing an offensive word. But of course, the removal of the n-word only serves to dilute one of the most important points that Twain was trying to make in Huckleberry Finn–the point that poor race relations between whites and African-Americans stemmed from the belief amongst whites that African-Americans were racially inferior to whites. “Slave” is a legal term denoting one’s status in the labor force, while the use of the n-word is a term designed to denigrate people for the color of their skin. One could stop being a slave, but if one is an African-American, racists believe that the n-word would always apply. Bowdlerizing Twain serves only to shield readers from this ugly truth, and to do them a disservice as a consequence. It is reassuring to know that there was significant amounts of pushback against the effort to bowdlerize Twain, and it is reassuring to know that the White House has decided not to shield visitors from the truth about America’s past via a symbolic, but consequential step that helps show just what that past was like.

  • Anonymous

    If “n*gger” is “America’s vilest racial epithet”, then what are to conclude from the use of the word by blacks to each other constantly and unashamedly?  Is ignoring that hypocrisy and crudeness (were you not aware of the practice?) not as patronizing as, say, awarding jobs and other benefits to people on the basis of the color of their skins?

    • Pejman Yousefzadeh

      Yes, I was and am aware of the practice, and don’t see how it makes the word any less vile, especially given its past use by whites to denigrate African-Americans.

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