“a word now shunned”

From the Sunday Review section of the NYT this Sunday, a thoughtful piece by Joe Nocera on Porgy and Bess (on the occasion of a new Broadway production):

Variations on an Explosive Theme

‘Porgy and Bess’ supplies a prism through which African-Americans have viewed their own history

When George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” — arguably the most important piece of American music written in the 20th century — first opened on Broadway in 1935, the opera’s libretto was littered with a word now shunned as an antiblack slur. The African-American residents of Catfish Row, the only slightly imaginary block in Charleston, S.C., where the opera is set, used it liberally, and so of course did the white characters during their occasional menacing visits.

Nocera goes on to tell the story of the show’s creation, the tension between its character as an opera and as a musical, the casting of black singers in it (the version I have on my iTunes is from the 1952 revival, with Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway, and Maya Angelou), its reception over many productions since 1935, attitudes towards the book (which focuses on the street life of poor Southern blacks), and attitudes towards the use of nigger (or Nigger) — the word now shunned — in it.

All this without using the word. The Times avoids the word, except in titles (like The Nigger of the Narcissus) and in quotations from speech, and the paper dislikes coy avoidance strategies like the N-word and the N-bomb — and really detests asterisking (n****r). So writers have to fall back on even greater indirection, as Nocera has done here.

(On obscenity — and slurs — in collision with literary merit, with links to discussions of nigger, see here.)


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