Monday, March 21, 2011

Nigger please!

The discussion about the use of the word "nigger" is not new.  Rappers, street-wise youth, comedians and intellectuals all regularly weigh in on the appropriateness and potential harm of referring to anyone that way - whether in endearment or hostility.    Personally, the word makes me bristle.  I suspect that has as much to do with the fact that the word is not a part of the Jamaican vernacular (or at least it wasn't when I was growing up) as it does with any historical or cultural meaning I have assigned to the word. I choose not to use the word and will strongly dissuade my sons from using it, but I firmly defend its use by an artist who feels it necessary to his expression.

I certainly defend its appearance in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. It's unfortunate that an overabundance of political correctness or a misguided attempt to protect young people has lead some school districts to pulling the book from the curriculum.  More horrifying, a publisher has printed the literary classic with the word 'slave' replacing all occurrences of 'nigger.'  Destroying a work of art is not beneficial to anyone - especially not to the students being taught.  To preserve it should surely be more important than preserving the sensibilities of a few hyper-sensitive administrators too limp-spined to risk criticism.

Mark Twain used the word 'nigger' because that was the language of his day.  He did not use the word to glorify its use.  That is obvious because the novel is an indictment of slavery and racism.  An author does not issue such an indictment without intending to rattle the cages of readers.  Discomfort, I am sure, is an expected byproduct of reading Huckleberry Finn.  And that discomfort is an opportunity for a discussion that can lead to understanding and healing.  Removing the word 'nigger' means teachers and students lose that opportunity.

The reluctance to be discomforted by discussions about race is precisely the reason why it continues to be an issue in our increasingly multiracial society.  It is generally accepted that problems are best resolved by confronting them, by discussing them.  For some reason though, race seems to be the exception to this rule.  Most people would rather scuttle discussions about race, in lieu of pretense that we are all the same and that there is not a painful history that proves otherwise.

Huckleberry Finn may be the only opportunity some young people will ever have to participate in a guided, sensible discussion about race, and the history of race relations in this country.  Removing the sting of the word 'nigger' from the book dilutes the author's message and does disservice to the impact it has had on readers for more than a century.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Strength in numbers

Politics has always had a heavy hand in the meanderings between workers' rights, labor rules, and the bottom-line concerns of management.  As a child, I learned about Sir Alexander Bustamante and his leadership in unifying Jamaica's dockworkers in order to get concessions for better work conditions, and subsequently starting the island's first trade union.  Even then, it seemed perfectly reasonable to me that workers would band together to negotiate with employers for fair salary, guarantees and working conditions. Certainly having been fired - because my supervisor did not think our personalities "meshed" - and having worked  as a government employee, I appreciate even more the benefits of unions protecting the rights of workers.

The industries that built this country - steel, mining, car manufacturing - would hardly be possible without having relied on the workers who valued their jobs - largely because of the security unionization provided.  The state sponsored union-busting in Wisconsin and other states rocks the very foundation of commerce and industry that drives the economies of every developed country.

Recently governors like New Jersey's Chris Christie and Wisconsin's Scott Walker seem intent on vilifying unions as a lead-in to balancing their states' budgets on the backs of working class people - those most protected by unions. It seems inane to me to lambaste unions because they have worked for the purpose they were intended; and to malign the benefits workers have managed to negotiate fairly - rather than meeting at the table in good faith.

For sure, it is not lost on me that some unions have become bullies that try to hold municipalities, school districts, and industries hostage. Teachers' unions argue for tenure and want to make it impossible for principals to fire poor performing teachers.  Municipal employees want to contribute as little as possible to their health insurance and retirement costs, even as private sector workers buckle under medical care costs and few have employer supported retirement funds. It is true that issues like these leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth and make it easier for union opponents to make their arguments. But bad taste or not, unions have an important role to play in the marketplace.  Union leaders have a responsibility to restore the integrity of the bargaining process, and political leaders have a responsibility to maintain the rights and interests of the working class.  There is no better way to do that, than to preserve the rights and existence of unions.