Of all the books and stories about Jeeves I could possibly have picked for our book club (and there were 35 short stories and 11 novels to choose from) I accidentally picked the one where Bertie Wooster uses That Word (read on to find out which word, if you dare). The bad thing is, I suspect I put a lot off people off Wodehouse for life. The good thing is we now have an opportunity to talk about the many different meanings one word can have.
In Thank You Jeeves, much of the plot involves the fact that a group of minstrels of African descent is performing at the country estate where Bertie is staying. Bertie expresses nothing but admiration for this troupe and is quite eager to meet them, because he expects they might be able to advise him on his banjolele playing. But he uses the word “nigger” to refer to them. He uses the word three times, completely matter-of-factly. I considered using “the n word” or something similar in this post to avoid causing offense and above all to escape my extreme discomfort with typing it, but it seems foolish not to stare that word, with all its ugly history, right in the face, and that means I have to spell the damn thing out.
The word “nigger” has become so incredibly inflammatory in our society that I can barely bring myself to type it. Its ugliness brings us right out of the story. Bertie is supposed to be an affable, sweet, dim but soft-hearted guy – how could he use such an ugly slur? I think the answer to that is that in the context of the times and the country, that word was slang (and we know Bertie loves slang) but it doesn’t seem to have had the full pejorative meaning that it developed later on, at least not in the self-consciously pejorative way it would be used today.
In terms of historical usage, the word in question was used to describe any person who was not from the British Isles and who had dark skin – this included people of Asian descent as well as African and Middle Eastern. The word was still in common use in the 1950’s – for instance, there was a brand of candy cigarette with that word in the title (sort of a perfect storm of cultural norms that have fallen out of favor for excellent reasons). By the 1970’s the word was universally considered an insult in Britain much as it is in the United States, although in the USA it fell out of semi-acceptable common usage much sooner.
There are a lot of clues in Bertie’s behavior that he is not particularly racist despite using a word that today practically defines racism. He doesn’t look down on the minstrel troupe. He admires them. He can’t wait to meet him, because he acknowledges that they are better than him at music and he hopes they will teach him how to play his beloved banjolele better. He never makes fun of them or insults him other than using a word which today is a great insult. We never see the minstrels so there are no insulting scenes of he minstrels bowing or scraping or otherwise having to behave in a demeaning fashion.
To me, the most compelling evidence that neither Bertie the character nor Wodehouse himself does not intend to cause offense is that Bertie (and Wodehouse) almost never intend to cause offense. Bertie is a kind person, but he’s not a thoughtful or intellectual or introspective person. He uses whatever slang is popular at the time with no thought of its connotations. Jeeves, who is more formal and more thoughtful about social niceties, does not use that word. He uses the word “negro”. Although the word “negro” has fallen somewhat out of modern favor, it was considered to be the most polite word available for a person of color at the time. It’s still used today by civil rights organizations such as “United Negro College Fund”. Although we sympathize with Bertie throughout the series, our admiration goes to Jeeves, so it’s significant that the true hero of the series uses the most courteous language at his disposal. This suggests that Wodehouse is not trying to be hateful in his attitudes in general.
But despite his lack of malice, Bertie is not completely off the hook, and neither is P.G. Wodehouse. When I look up the history of the word “nigger” in England, I find frequent references to it being a generally accepted word, one that was in common usage well into the 1940’s. It seems to have been used as a commonplace word, not as a calculated insult. The problem is, I can’t seem to find anything about how people reacted to this word who were actually black, and I also know that racism was a huge problem in England’s history. I’m less interested in what Bertie meant than in what the minstrel group would have felt if they had heard Bertie address them using that word – and they have no voice, so I don’t know.
There’s a phrase I hear a lot these days: “Check your privilege”. It means, take a look at your words and actions and make sure that you aren’t overlooking the viewpoint and/or struggles of those who have to struggle for respect and survival. P.G. Wodehouse and his characters are all about privilege and they have no interest in checking it. If a modern white character called a black character “nigger” than we could assume that a calculated insult was being delivered (the term is used in hip-hop culture in ways that I’m not well-educated about, but in any other context an insult would be pretty much guaranteed). In Wodehouse’s day, the word may have been used innocently by Bertie, who doesn’t want to hurt anyone but just wants to practice his banjolele. Even when he puts on blackface, it’s not to make fun of anyone – he just wants to escape his captor (and the fact that then he can’t remove the boot polish he used makes it something of a cautionary tale).
But just because Bertie isn’t trying to hurt anyone doesn’t mean he doesn’t hurt anyone, and the same could be said for P.G. Wodehouse. As Spiderman says, “With great power comes great responsibility” and when it came to social issues, P.G. Wodehouse assiduously avoided great responsibility. Reading classics lets us see the values and norms of an earlier age – and sometimes those values and norms aren’t pretty.
Here are a couple essays that helped me formulate my thoughts (I also looked up some language background on Wikipedia which was both interesting and depressing):
FreeThoughtblogs: Bertie and the N-Word