A lesson in context…

Russel Pergament, publisher of the Boston-area paper The Metro, says he will not run an ad for an upcoming play called “No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs.” The title, it seems is offensive. Why? Pergament explains:

“I just thought it had the potential to disturb a lot of people. It was strictly a gut instinct: I didn’t like it, and I didn’t want to run it. We’ve got a lot of young people reading the paper. Going to school or going to work in the morning, why should they have to see something like that? I just had a bad feeling about it.”

Without context, the title does appear offensive. Let’s add some context.

The author, John Henry Redwood, is an African-American who saw a sign with those words on it in the South. The sign inspired him to write the play–a family drama set in a North Carolina in 1949. Much art arises from our response to the socio-political realities of our lives. The sign is offensive. But is the title of a play based on an artistic response to the sign also offensive?

While the title may be uncomfortable to read because of what it suggests, in the context of this play it seems to be a critique of the racism that apparently created the original sign. So the term “nigger” in the title is not a racial epithet in this context; it is a critique of such vile name-calling. The inference from the sign that African-Americans and people of the Jewish faith are “dogs” does not inhere to the title of the play.

Words have denotations and connotations. These ways of meaning are not simply a matter of variety. Instead, context plays a huge role in making meaning. A racist goober who scrawls those words on a sign does not mean the same thing as an African-American playwright responding to that sign.

Run the ad!