Wodehouse and Racist Epithets

Neil Midkiff

The following question was raised in alt.fan.wodehouse by a reader who reacted badly to the use of the word “nigger” in Bertie’s reference to the minstrels in Thank You, Jeeves.

I was wondering if, when Plum put pen to paper, if that word had the same extremely negative racist conotations it does today or is it just a part of Berties vocab of the current slang (I note that Jeeves uses ‘Negro’ instead)?

This is a complex topic, and difficult to sum up in a single posting, but it’s clear to me that Plum didn’t intend Bertie to be using the term as offensive invective. Bertie indeed speaks highly of the talent of the musicians, and wants to get banjolele lessons from their banjo player. But Bertie does use the popular catch-all term for those of darker skin, a term which seems to have been used over a long period of time by people of many degrees of attitudes about race, as well as a stock theatrical term for minstrels who were often white performers in blackface.

For a cross-check on the term, see Dorothy L. Sayers’s Unnatural Death (1927), in which the Rev. Hallelujah Dawson, the mixed-race grandson of a British planter in the West Indies, and whom Sayers describes as “undoubtedly a man of colour. He had the pleasant, slightly aquiline features and brown-olive skin of the Polynesian” is also called a “nigger” and a “blackamoor” by Miss Timmins, a narrow-minded provincial elderly lady. Before the Rev. Mr. Dawson arrives on the scene, Lord Peter Wimsey (Sayers’s detective) discusses her evidence thus:

“‘Nigger,’ to a Miss Timmins, may mean anything from a high-caste Brahmin to Sambo and Raustus at the Coliseum—it may even, at a pinch, be an Argentine or an Esquimaux.”

Sambo and Raustus, of course, are characters in the minstrel show, and might well be white performers in blackface.

Of course the use of the term by racist people like Miss Timmins eventually made the term unusable in polite society. But there was a time when the term was unthinkingly applied by people of generally broader goodwill. There are three instances of the N-word in the original libretti of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, for instance.

And the casual acceptance of the term lasted longer in Britain than in America. Agatha Christie’s mystery novel variously known as And Then There Were None and Ten Little Indians was originally published in the UK in 1939 as Ten Little Niggers, and the 1945 film version of it was released in Britain under that title. (It was And Then There Were None in the US.) Its structure of murders is based on a nursery rhyme about the fates of a diminishing group of “little niggers”—altered to “little Indian boys” in later publication, although the phrase “nigger in the woodpile” remains in a 1986 American edition of the book.

One can scarcely argue that there wasn’t a degree of fundamental racism in British society at the height of the Empire, but then the average Englishman probably considered himself as much superior to a Frenchman or a Turk as to an African, so that prejudice wasn’t all a matter of color. It’s certainly not admirable to lump all darker-skinned people into a catch-all category, but (just as with the word “colored” in America) the N-word was sometimes just informal shorthand without either hatred, or, probably, much real understanding either. And, unfortunately, sometimes it was a term of hate.

The point, I guess, is that when we look back at the word usage of a previous time, we have to check the context to figure out what the speaker meant by it. We can’t automatically assume that today’s connotations were what the writer had in mind.

As an example of the errors of that kind of assumption, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is currently banned in some locales because Huck uses the only word he knew for African Americans—despite the fact that Huck is so far from being racist that he is willing to put his own soul in jeopardy, as his training has led him to believe, in order to do what his conscience tells him is right: to free the slave Jim.

Wodehouse sometimes uses the N-word realistically as Twain did: putting it in the mouth of Americans to portray the characters as racist. And when Bertie refers to an actual person of African descent, he calls him “the coloured chappie in charge of the elevator” (“Jeeves and the Chump Cyril”), which today jars on us just a little but was considered polite then, and is certainly not used as a racial slur.

Here’s another data point which is brand-new to me, and may be unfamiliar to most of you since it’s from PGW’s story “Kid Brady, Lightweight”, published in the US magazine Pearson’s for September, 1905. It’s a first-hand account of Plum’s own perspective at the time; his first trip to America (April-May 1904) had been largely prompted by his interest in boxing and especially American boxers, and he indeed visited the training camp of Kid McCoy on this trip. So while the story is fiction, I think we can take the social context as a matter of eyewitness reporting.

It was two days after [Kid Brady’s] eighteenth birthday that, arriving a little late at the gymnasium, he found Mike [Muldoon, ex-champ and proprietor of the gym] in conversation with a tall, wiry-looking young negro.

“Here, Kid,” said Mike, as he sighted him, “come here. Ye’ve read of Mr Van Courtland’s unknown which is to fight Eddie Brock next month? This is the lad—only it’s a secret, so ye mustn’t tell—Joe Johnson, colored champeen of Brooklyn at the lightweight limit. Ye’ll be one of his sparring partners.”

The Kid shook hands with the stranger. Being British-born, he had none of the American’s inherited dislike of the colored, but there was something in the Brooklyn man’s face which he did not fancy. His early life in the street had given him the habit of summing up the men he met at a glance.

So here’s Plum in his early twenties, writing for an American audience; it’s clear that Wodehouse reacted negatively to the anti-Negro prejudice he saw in America, and wasn’t afraid to say so. By modern standards, I’m sure we could criticize the British attitudes that he had been raised in as well, but at least he was aware enough to be forthright about the prejudice he could see from that perspective.

There is surely a lot more to be said on the topic, but I’ll let others have their turn at it now.

(From the Usenet newsgroup alt.fan.wodehouse, Dec. 14, 1998, slightly altered and expanded by NM for this site.)