Friday, February 25, 2011

Historical accuracy vs. political correctness

In one of the writer's groups I belong to, we've recently had a discussion about historical accuracy versus political correctness when trying to portray the antebellum South. It's been quite interesting and very eye-opening to learn just how many editors are out there who think political correctness should trump historical accuracy.

This bothers me. A lot. My family has lived in the South for over 200 years. My family roots go all the way back to the Mayflower. And yes, members of my family owned slaves. But they were greatly outnumbered by the tenant farmers and share-croppers in my family tree.

I think the whole hullabaloo with Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer illustrates this very thing that we, as a society, are grappling with. I also think it's a giant neon red DANGER sign that political correctness is going too far.

Rewriting history to make it "less offensive" serves no one. If we white-wash the past, how can future generations learn from it?

Yes slavery and racism was a very real problem in the South. Racism still is. But guess what? Slavery and racism have existed since the dawn of time, and neither will go away until Jesus returns. How does removing it from history make it any less of a problem?

The job of a historical novelist is not to rewrite the past. It is to paint it with the truest colors possible while not offending, so that people can learn from it and not repeat those mistakes. My current novel WIP deals with slavery, in a rather blatant manner. It's crucial to the plot. There is a character who uses "the N word"( and I don't mean the one that ends with "o"), because that's the kind of person of he is. He doesn't see his slaves as human beings. People like that really existed and we shouldn't ignore it.

If we start changing Mark Twain's written words, who's next? Will we sanitize other pieces of great literature that have "offensive" things in them? Will we go after The Picture of Dorian Gray because it might offend old people? What about Poe, or Dickens? Will they be safe?

This is a very dangerous path to tread. As a historical writer, I find it very disturbing.

1 comment :

  1. You make a good point here, Rachel. I think our job as a serious writer is to find a way to depict an accurate past. But in doing so we can use our skills to craft our stories with tact rather than using the vulgarity of some past writers. In my upcoming release I had to deal similarly with a half-breed Indian. I used the voice of a few characters judiciously to show what I needed to about views during that time to get the point across. Even the heroine had to stumble through her own attitudes and choice of words. Sometimes not saying something explains it as well.