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In Praise or Fear of Words
(an essay on choosing a title for her first novel, Growing Up Nigger Rich)
By Gwendoline Y. Fortune

There's not a child in America who has not run crying to a parent, teacher, or other adult as a result of a comment cruelly thrown by a compatriot. The calm, adult response is, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." The child soon finds that rhyming words do not remove pain. Adults know they will not, but the intent behind the "Band-Aid" is as old as language and is the adult desire to soothe hurt and foster maturity.
My intent in composing a story that expresses my experience of being a person of color in American society is both simple and complex. As a fifteen year old college freshman, I tried to write a story that would express my experience, emotions, confusion, pleasure, and pain of being a Negro in the South of pre-integration days. The intent was forty years incubating.
When I completed the earliest draft of my novel, I called it Growing Up, Growing Out. My son said, "Mom, you need something that will grab attention. Why don't you call it Growing Up Nigger Rich because that's what you were?" We decided that the title would get the attention of an agent or a publisher, but that the title might later be changed by a publisher.
I recall reading the word "nigger" in Richard Wright's work and other novels of my youth. I recall the times I was called, and heard others who were brown-skinned called, "nigger." I recall cohorts in the small city of Anderson, South Carolina who sneered, laughed, and said to me, "You think you're something, 'cause you're nigger rich." Once said lightly, I have come to realize that the phrase, "nigger rich," is essential to the fictionalized account of the world-view I have always known. To reject the novel because of the title is to reject the creative process and person and to reject the humanity of numberless people of similar inheritance and sensibility again.
I avoid so-called "rap," a musical form that permeates current youth culture, but I've heard the word "nigger" is omnipresent in this form. I've often heard the word "nigger" used as a term of affection between colleagues in all-black company: "Nigger, I haven't seen you since Hector was a pup," etc. The Civil Rights activist, and my former neighbor, comedian Dick Gregory, wrote a book titled Nigger.

In my own test-marketing, I have quoted the title to hundreds of people: Asian, Black, and White. Nearly everyone has said something like, "That would get my attention," and "I'd buy it to see what it was about." Several have, immediately, understood the context and smiled. Only once did I receive a rejecting, dismissive comment. At a party the daughter of a friend said, "My friends and I couldn't read that book on the bus." The roomful of people of a variety of colors, all laughed.
The owner of the premier bookstore near Duke University in Chapel Hill, North Carolina said, "Well, my children aren't allowed to say the word, but I'd carry your book."
My philosophical, scholarly, and psychological reaction for anyone who would reject a fourword phrase because of one word, the third, is to ask them to consider the context, look at the cover, read randomly from the novel. Upon reflection, I question the inner fear that would deny and hide from a word, regardless of its negative pervasiveness in the culture. Fully aware of historical reality and current, misguided "political correctness," my social, scientific, historical, artistic, and personal assessment is that the title and the novel offer one of too few opportunities for readers to move beyond limitation, to explore reflexive responses, and to think.
My childhood neighbors, responding to their own pain, knew that "Sticks and stones can break my bones and so can words." And words can be a powerful learning.

Gwendoline Y. Fortune is the author of the forthcoming new novel, Growing Up Nigger Rich. It is her first novel.
GROWING UP NIGGER RICH
By Gwendoline Y. Fortune
PUBLICATION DATE: March 2002
256 pp. 6 x 9
ISBN: 1-56554-963-5 $22.00
All rights held by Pelican Publishing Company, Inc.

 

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