Racist terms in historical documents
May 28, 2017 6:13 AM   Subscribe

When posting historical documents online, what’s the best way to deal with their inclusion of a racist slur?

My mother is transcribing a large number of letters to and from several members of her family, and she’s going to create a website and post them online. The collection is historically important, especially because of the writing about politics. The collection also includes lots of genealogical information and tells a great story of a large, interesting family.

One of the letters, from the late 1920s, includes the n-word. The letter writer and the recipient were white, as is my mother.

What’s the best way to deal with this? Is there a commonly-accepted best practice? For example, should Mom:
- type it as written?
- type it as written with a footnote acknowledging that today we understand this term to be deeply offensive?
- use asterisks?
- omit the entire sentence?
- something else?
posted by MangoNews to Writing & Language (13 answers total)
If the context is meant to be historical then type it as written.
posted by bitdamaged at 6:19 AM on May 28, 2017 [21 favorites]

If she want this to be most useful to historians, she should type the letter as-is with no editorialization. If she wants to warn folks about the contents of the letters (for any reason), she can provide that on a separate page of the website.
posted by zebra at 6:20 AM on May 28, 2017 [17 favorites]

Oh, and she'll probably also want to post scanned images of the letters themselves, not just the transcriptions.
posted by zebra at 6:22 AM on May 28, 2017 [24 favorites]

Don't change or omit anything in the actual letter. If you intend for this to be read by members of the general public, rather than historians, you could provide some sort of warning at the top that this letter contains offensive language and views, which would give people an opportunity to opt out. Adding a footnote doesn't help at all.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:32 AM on May 28, 2017 [18 favorites]

Type it as written. We do not redact history.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:43 AM on May 28, 2017 [21 favorites]

Leave it alone. History is what it is.
posted by holborne at 7:13 AM on May 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Professional historian here. The text should be transcribed exactly as it is. I agree with zebra that scanned images of the letters would be a good addition. Beyond that, it would be a good idea for your mom to talk to an archivist about principles and standards of transcription (e.g., how to deal with material that is crossed out or added to the text). The local historical society or university would be a good place to start. At a minimum, it would be worth reviewing the principles of transcription employed in published letter collections; the first volume of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin (Cambridge University Press, 1985) has a good overview.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:20 AM on May 28, 2017 [24 favorites]

Whoopi Goldberg did great introduction commentary to the Looney Tunes collection dvds where you might get some excellent phrasing if you do a type of note like zebra suggests.
posted by NoraCharles at 7:33 AM on May 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

Librarian here: agreed leave all the words in and, if possible, include the scans. There are some good tips for other stuff at the National Archives Citizen Archivist website.
posted by jessamyn at 8:40 AM on May 28, 2017 [6 favorites]

Museum/archives person here, nthing that yes, leave all the words, and if possible include the scans.

The Smithsonian Transcription Center has documents up on their site with problematic language. Here is the disclaimer language they use at the bottom of the page, in case this might be helpful:
Please note that some language in this collection may be culturally insensitive or offensive to some viewers. It is presented as it exists in the original document for the benefit of research. The material reflects the culture and context in which it was created and not the views of the Smithsonian Institution.
posted by gudrun at 10:44 AM on May 28, 2017 [7 favorites]

As written.

Quoting, mentioning, archiving or documenting a racist slur is not at all the same thing as employing one.
posted by flabdablet at 12:26 PM on May 28, 2017

Use [sic]?

(sic erat scriptum)
posted by porpoise at 1:31 PM on May 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thank you all, from both of us!
posted by MangoNews at 6:02 PM on May 29, 2017

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