On N*****heads in History and Culture

by Michael Potemra

A couple of summers ago, I reread the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming. They date from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, and many of them feature scenes involving scuba diving. In many of these particular scenes, James Bond and other characters observe — in addition to sharks and other wildlife — “n*****heads.” The first time I ran across this word in my rereading, I was a little shocked, because I had no memory of it from my last reading of the books (when I was a kid, in the 1970s). But Fleming went back to this territory so often, and so matter-of-factly, that by the fourth time I encountered the word it was merely a placeholder for the item it was describing (as it happens, an underwater coral formation). In the absence of racial animus in the rest of the work, it was hard to see it as a culpable word choice.

I do not say this in extenuation of Rick Perry, but merely as a plea for common sense. If Perry left an old sign unchanged because it was an old sign, that’s one thing. If he left it unchanged because he approves of the social attitudes that existed in the days of institutionalized and socially empowered white racism, that’s quite another. In either case, it’s not the word on the rock that is really what we should be talking about. What does Rick Perry believe about black people? That’s the important question, and I have yet to see any evidence that his opinions on this question are racist or otherwise discreditable. (I mean it when I say I’m not making these comments out of some sort of parti pris for Rick Perry. In the current campaign, I lean toward Chris Christie, and — once Christie says (today?) that he’s definitely out —  toward Mitt Romney. But I rule nobody out quite yet.)