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