Recently, during a conversation with two close coworkers, an Indian woman and a Kenyan man, I was embarrassed to catch myself using the word "segregate."  Let me clarify: I was using the term in the most banal possible context, in reference to visually distinguishing our website's news content from the blog content you're reading right now.  Nonetheless, in using it, and in realizing I was using it, I immediately became the worst kind of equivocating white apologist, the kind who didn't mean anything by it and who has lots of black friends. I still can't decide whether or not I think it's acceptable to use such a fraught word even when it was so literally and benignly situated.  This is, obviously, a question greater than a conversational faux pas or even a curious blog post: has the progress of American race relations reached a point where we can safely assume that past negative connotations of words like "segregate" (or "ghetto," or "lynch," though I have no idea how the latter would arise in a casual workplace conversation) have been unloaded, that these words have been reconstituted as 'safe'?  I doubt it, but I don't think it's for me to decide.

Delving deeper, what are we to do with the relics of well-meaning integrationists of the past?  To use another example from my own life, I've been doing some light research for the young adult novel I'm writing by reading a book called Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom.  Nordstrom, I've learned, was a titan of mid-century children's literature; as the director of Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, she published a litany of children's classics such as Goodnight Moon, Little House on The Prairie, Freaky Friday, Harriet The Spy, Where The Wild Things Are, Charlotte's Web, and Julie of The Wolves

An ardent liberal, Nordstrom was also widely credited for her insistence on producing truthful, boundary-pushing books for children.  Among them was the Black author Jesse Jackson's (not that Jesse Jackson) children's novel Call Me Charley, one of the first children's books to directly address racism.  In it, the Black protagonist, Charley Moss, and his family move to an all-white suburb, and Charley struggles for acceptance from his schoolmates.  The book was published in 1945, nine years before Brown v. Board of Education legislated school integration.

One of the most affecting, or so I thought, letters in the Nordstrom collection is a letter from the editor in response to a child who was disturbed by Jackson's use of the word "niggers" in his book.  Nordstrom replies to the reader's school librarian:

"I think what she is referring to is a bit on Page 8.  George Reed, a very stupid and ignorant boy tells Charley that they don't like "niggers" around there--and immediately another character tells George to take "that trashy talk" away....I can't believe the child finished the book.  But I hope with all my heart that she will read it carefully and feel differently about it....If she does [talk the matter over with you] will you try to help her understand that, as I wrote her, Jesse Jackson and we feel exactly the way she feels about Negroes?" (Dear Genius, ed. Leonard S. Marcus, HarperCollins 1998, page 15)

Over sixty years later, it would be incomprehensible to publish a children's book containing either the word referenced from Call Me Charley or the word used mollifyingly in the editor's response, no matter the framework surrounding them.  In her letter, Nordstrom clearly uses "Negroes" (then a term of respect, or at least not one of disrespect) as a vehicle to assuage the child's distress--but what, really, does the gentler term, with a capital N, reveal that the vulgar one bastardizes?  That the protagonist of the book is, indeed, an Other?  That he belongs to a group of people who continue to be marginalized on her watch, on Nordstrom's, and on the watch of all the world's stupid and ignorant George Reeds? 

My point is not that Nordstrom (or the child, ostensibly) ought to be retroactively penalized for using obsolete terms that were current to her era; rather, it is only that the way we determine what language is obscene or offensive is often arbitrary at best--that in almost all cases, connotation is contextual.  The same word Nordstrom used as a gesture of respect could today be hurled as an epithet; only our cultural and historical settings have changed.

What all of these problems of naming circle around is the greater issue of representation.  Although Call Me Charley's lexicon has been replaced, I think few would contest the value of a Black author publishing a frank book about race for children--children, who spot fakery and prejudice so much more quickly than adults--at any time.  My concern, then, with the ethnic media is its role in ensuring fair and lifelike representation--not just in terms of guaranteeing a vote for every American, but in terms of the faces and voices we all hear and see on television, in the movies, in our books, and in our news sources.

Representation (especially from a white person's perspective, I think) is one of those things that once you begin to notice it, you can't stop noticing it.  Ursula Nordstrom, it seems, might have agreed: 17 years after writing her response to the reception of Call Me Charley, in 1963, Nordstrom wrote another letter to another reader stating that "We have over the years published books in which Negro characters appear."  She goes on to list four Harper books written by Black authors involving Black characters and two more books by white authors that feature Black characters.

About this list, Nordstrom writes: "The preceding paragraph is simply to assure you that we feel all segments of our country's life should be presented naturally, particularly in books for young people."

It's a quaint notion as she presents it, but I'm inclined to agree.

Laura Goode is one of NAM's two Communications Directors, as well as an editor and facilitator for The Beat Within.  Also a freelance poet, playwright, and novelist, her first novel for young adults, Sister Mischief, is forthcoming from Candlewick Press in 2010.