By Russel D McLean
I recently read Shaft, the novel by Ernest Tidyman that of course would also become one of the coolest films ever made.
Shaft is actually a well-written novel, a real fast mover, and just an entertaining read. But one part in particular suck out like a sore thumb. The blatant and rather distaseteful homophobia that sneaks through the novel. At one point, Shaft notices a “queer” checking him out. He gives the guy a wink and says he’ll be at a place in Central Park about one am. The other guy nods excitedly and Shaft leaves the coffee house where he’s been using the phone hoping that the gay man knows karate so that he’ll last ten minutes or so against those muggers. Yeah, he’s setting the guy up just for looking at him funny.
It’s a strange moment in the book, and jarring to someone of my generation. But after reaching the end of the sequence I remembered when the book was written and the prevailing attitudes of the time and place. I accepted it was part of the book’s contemporaneous nature and moved on.
But others might not.
It made me think about the guys who want to remove That Word from Huckleberry Finn or the talk about removing some of the more dated and racist jokes from early episodes of Sitcoms of the seventies.
Its all about context. Viewing these things with the knowledge that they are historical documents and that time has moved on, you come to gain an understanding about where and when they were written. Your unease at the references allows you to reflect on why these words and ideas are offensive or unsettling.
But what about the children, I hear you cry.
You know what, you can talk openly and frankly to the children about how times have changed and how such ideas are no longer acceptable. You can help your children to understand how times change, how people are capable of change and how society is different now.
I don’t believe its right to change documents as they were written to reflect modern attitudes and ideas. I believe it is better to place the documents in context, to debate, engage with and understand why they say what they say, why they use the ideas and the words that they do.
Because otherwise we are rewriting history, forgetting the past.
And you know what they say about those who forget the past…