Monday, 7 November 2016

Using the n-word in historical fiction

A reader commented that she was shocked I used the n-word in A Shackled Inheritance. I agree, the word is shocking. But historical fiction cannot airbrush the truth. If we want to understand the present, we have accept the realities of the past, even if those realities upset or offend modern readers.

I put the word into the mouths of my island-dwelling, slave-owning characters, who include free persons of colour, because I wanted to show how slave-owners used language to justify the gulf between themselves and the slaves they treated as goods to be bought and sold. From Babylonian and Egyptian times onwards, people in a position of wealth and privilege have justified their privilege by denying the humanity of others. I suspect a schizoid mentality of 'them and us', underpinned by wilful blindness, is easily triggered in human brains. English slang may have progressed from calling the poor 'the great unwashed' to dismissing them as 'chavs' but the negative intention remains the same.  

Again, ‘free coloured’ is offensive to modern ears, but it was the term used in the British colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, in censuses and legal documents, to refer to mixed-race or black people who were free citizens.

It is not surprising that mixed-race slave owners and overseers aligned themselves with the white community and also treated slaves with cruelty and contempt. To admit any sort of kinship with people who were treated like animals, or to champion their cause, might have jeopardised their own comfortable situation. . .  


  1. Madeleine, what a brave post, but one that is true. You can not hide or deny the past. Especially, if one wants to improve the future.

    1. Thanks, Erin. I don't see how it is possible to set a story in an age when slavery was legal without using this word. At the same time, I can see that it is hurtful and demeaning even 200 years later.

  2. Very apposite today, too. If only people would listen, learn and take all these historical lessons on board, but they think they are Teflon. And history always proves them wrong.