How Should Offensive Language in Diaries be Handled?

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today:     

Saturday, June 8, 1912:  The high lady here wanted to make a certain kind of cake, and so I walked to the neighbors to get an ingredient. I truly am the n_____  around here. I am getting that color as I and the sun’s rays often meet and collide.

Recent photo of a neighbor’s house

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Most days I look forward to writing a post—today is not one of those days. I’ve known that this entry was coming up for several weeks and I’ve dreaded it.

I need help. How should I write about this diary entry?

Grandma probably used language and expressed sentiments that were typical of those in her community. I don’t think any less of Grandma because of what she wrote—yet I’m troubled by this entry.

As family historians, how should controversial text in family documents be handled?  . . . use it verbatim?  . . . edit it?  . .  don’t include it in family histories? . .  . .include additional historic contextual information? . . .

Is it important to accurately report what the original document said?  . . .or do readers of family histories want to feel good about their ancestors and not read upsetting things? . . .

31 thoughts on “How Should Offensive Language in Diaries be Handled?

  1. All very valid questions & concerns. I’m of the opinion ‘no harm/no foul’, your grandma used what was once acceptable language, that being said, most would find it offensive in print. Perhaps best to let folks read between the lines -vs- using it verbatim.

  2. I believe you treated it fairly here. It is what it is. Those who can’t figure out the word or need an explanation can ask.

    Our sensibilities are evolving, but this does not change the past. We cannot change history, only the future.

  3. Great questions. The way you chose to handle that on this blog is perfect, along with your personal feeling on publishing. In your family history, I would include it, verbatim. I think it’s important to understand the societal norms in which your ancestors lived. It made me think about my own 2 grandmothers. One said similar things (and more) while I don’t think I ever heard anything even related to race from the other. And I loved them both dearly.

  4. I liked the way you handled it here. You reported it accurately, in a manner to show what was said but respecting your own sensibilities.

  5. As mentioned…it is what it is. I can relate to your sensitivity toward the subject. I heard my own Grandmother use the same term. Not comfortable…but that is how the world was. An accurate account of your family history is still important…not offensive. 🙂

  6. Either way, writing the word out or just putting in n________, it’s jarring to me to find your grandmother saying this, but, as you said it reflected what was (and sadly sometimes still is) the way people think/thought/talk. Adding your own feelings makes all the difference to me. It’s always unsettling to come across people’s racism when reading books or anywhere else. I admit I wasn’t expecting it from your grandmother this morning, but to tell the truth, I never am.

  7. I have that same problem working with Dad’s letters. Not much has come up a time or two. I choose to edit it out, as it offends me to write it. But my father’s letters have so much information in them it is easy to hide it. I think you did good.

  8. I think you handled it in the right way. As you say I’m sure she wasn’t saying anything that wasn’t being said in the community. I remember reading something on the history of Milton reading about “N______Hill”. It was probably around the time your grandmother was keeping the diary. I think it’s good that we are upset or disconcerted about something like this. I’m reminded of watching several episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are?” and seeing people who had very southern roots being “appalled” to find out their ancestors owned slaves – did they really not think that was a very real possibility? There were slaves in Milton before the Civil War – if there were slaves in Pennsylvania at this time and you have southern roots you better expect to find slaves in your ancestors households. It doesn’t mean they were particularly heinous people nor does it mean that it was the right thing to do but that’s the way it was in America. You have to look at the times the individual was referring to.

  9. Times and sensibilities change. How we use language changes. It is important to acknowledge these changes. I think you handled it well. I think people need to be reminded about how things change, too. so including your notes about those changes is important. Changes have been going on ever since the first people discovered language! Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what will be different in another hundred years? And we don’t even know it yet!

  10. I had the same dilemma in the letters of my Uncle Ralph. There is the political correctness that shadows our thoughts and writings which makes me cringe at the terms that he used. But then, I remember him and he was not a bigot or a mean-spirited man. I dinna want folks to think badly of this good man that had an interesting history and memories to share. Then I had the inner battle that if I “edited”, “deleted”, “changed” his words, then was it a transcription of his letters, or when did it become mine? I finally decided that those were his words, in his time and place, and I would honor those words as he said them. That was part of his history — my history, and if others took offense when none was intended, then that was their problem. His words and memories are too precious to squander on today’s political correctness.

    Enuff, enuff, i’ll get off of my soap box now.

    BTW I do not think less of Helena for her words in that time and place. She is still that delightful young girl-woman, struggling to find her place and voice in the world.

  11. I wish the diary could be read just the way it was written, no political correctness, no sanitizing, just your grandmother’s words…Yesterday, I struggled with using the word bastard in a post. The struggle didn’t last long because the word glared at me from a census page…I love your daily commentaries and today’s was well done…There is nothing your grandmother could write that I haven’t heard in regard to the “N” word. I remember the essence of a past entry concerning a black man, I was not surprised by Helena’s words…I will be back tomorrow for her next entry.

  12. I agree with the general consensus here. Preserve historical accuracy/context in the reporting, but have your own say, as you have done. My own grandparents in their last days would always lean in the other direction, saying that so and so that they interacted with at the hospital, or wherever, was such a nice “colored” person. That almost bothered me more than flat out racist terms; as if it were a surprise to them.

  13. I also feel you handled it appropriately. Using it as “N________” let us know what the word was without having to read it except in the mind’s eye. Sharing your feelings about it was appropriately put and showed your sensitivity without condoning or bowing to the word that is no longer part of our language. I remember singing the Eeny meeny miney moe rhyme and being told the word was now “tiger” and I was about 5 and that was over 50 years ago.

    1. When I was a kid, the N word was used in that rhyme. I was so uncomfortable with it (born in 1954) that I backed out of any situation that used it. There were blacks and whites in my neighborhood and I just happened to notice how differently they were treated and viewed, and did NOT like it. A child knows better, sometimes…

  14. I also feel you handled it appropriately. Using it as “N________” let us know what the word was without having to read it except in the mind’s eye. It was the unabashed lingo of the time. We don’t need to see the word in print. Sharing your feelings about it was appropriately put and showed your sensitivity without condoning or bowing to the word that is no longer part of our language. I remember singing the Eeny meeny miney moe rhyme and being told the word was now “tiger” and I was about 5 and that was over 50 years ago. Keep up the excellent work.

  15. Even though only a couple people mentioned it, this whole thing reeks of political correctness. And pc is nothing but censorship. The idea that people can go through life without offending someone else is ludicrous. Nothing from the past should ever be changed; there is too much rewriting of history as it is. A couple people used the word racist. I believe that most people in this country are no longer racist. The word has descended to nothing more than a political term used to smear someone else. You should have written the word as your grandmother did.


  16. It seems to me that you handled it very well. Everyone knows exactly what was said (thus preserving history…history is not always lovely) yet you were sensitive to those who may be wounded by such language today. Many of us live with the wounds society inflicts upon us… yet we strive to overcome and heal and understand the turmoil the human race has come through. So I believe your post is valid and and useful.

  17. Historical accuracy in the context of the time period. In so doing you preserve your ancestor’s words and your integrity. Your questions have certainly sparked conversation on this end. Thank you.

  18. I think you handled it well. Maybe it’s a little too easy for us to look back on history with our contemporary understanding and judge what our ancestors did and said; however, because of those very contemporary sensibilities, the word spelled out with no explanation would have been more jarring to me, so I think your solution was the right one. In the end, we do not truly know what she intended at the time she wrote this …. It is an interesting family history dilemma, and I think you handled it well.

  19. Thank you all for your wonderful, thoughful comments. We are grappling with some extremely important issues that family historians sometimes face. The stories, your thoughts and struggles, and your carefully-thought out solutions are very helpful.

  20. I agree about the context of the times in which the word was used. She may not have said it in everyday use, though she no doubt heard it. Grandma uses her journal for many purposes. One is to occasionally express anger when she feels treated unfairly. It is a powerful word for personal feelings she may have otherwise not been able to show.

  21. Hi Sheryl. Like many others, I think you handled this appropriately. When I read this again, it shounds like your grandmother was expressing unfair treatment. Our ancestors were human just like we are. Like all of us, she was a product of the time and culture in which she lived. It shows us that your grandmother was aware of how others were treated. Since her entry is brief we only have a glimpse of how she saw this topic. What I appreciate is that you’ve been true to the purpose of your blog, which is to share what she wrote 100 years ago. Your comments tell us about you and the struggle with a sensitive topic. Your willingness to ask for opinions has resulted in a really great dialogue! I look forward to hearing more from yoru grandmother.

  22. I think I’m with Joan on this…using it verbatim is the most historically valid. However it’s a good thing that we are offended by its usage -it shows that we’ve gained some understanding since Helena’s time. Having said that it must be distressing for people with African American ancestry to be reminded of how commonplace this terminology and attitude was (and sometimes still is). You showed in your comments how uncomfortable it has made you feel and I think that was a good way to approach it.

  23. Hello again! I took a moment to read this post and the dialogue to my husband. He happens to like history. He also traveled quite a bit when he was in the service, so he is often attuned to various cultures. Here’s what he had to say, “I would have left it as it was in order to be honest with history. Too often “the victor” can re-write history. This way the reader can form their own honest opinion.”

    Thanks, again, Sheryl! My husband and I often discuss historical events, and we had an interesting discussion because of your post! Thanks so much!

  24. My parents were both from South Western Pa. My mother would often say to us kids “who was your n_____last year?” When I would spend my summers in Pa. The n word was used as a substitute for slave, I don’t think they thought it was racist because they were all very nice opened minded people in my family. It was just the language used in that part of the country at that time. It wasn’t until after WWII when my parents came to Ohio that they learned you didn’t say things like that because you were insulting a whole community. My mother had never come in contact with a African American until then.

  25. Sheryl, I think you handled it as well as you could. The word was in use at that time. The other night, my husband and I were watching “Saved From the Flames”, which is a collection of early films that have been restored. One of them was an early Stan Laurel (sans Oliver Hardy) short called “The Pest”. In one scene, he grabs a handful from a pile labeled as “N_____ Toes” from a shop. I knew the term, but was shocked to see it in use to identify a product. My husband (eight years my senior), was not as familiar with the term, and I had to explain to him that what he had grabbed were some Brazil Nuts.

  26. I say write what she actually said, but make a note about it in your commentary. It shows how views have changed over the years. I wonder what will be considered offensive in a hundred years from now…?

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