By Michael Miner

There’s That Word Again

No word is simply what it means and how it came to mean it. Ask a poet. Early this year there was a tempest over “niggardly”–a word spoken by the white ombudsman of Washington, D.C., to describe his budget and heard by a black aide to the black mayor as a racial slur. Journalists promptly consulted linguists and reported that the roots of “niggardly,” which means “miserly,” lie in 14th-century Norse. A black lawyer then wondered, “Do we really know where the Norwegians got the word?”

The mayor accepted the ombudsman’s resignation, as commentators white and black mourned another triumph of ignorance. Not to impugn the ombudsman–who was more contrite than he had reason to be–but words do have to answer for their ring in your ear. It’s easy to imagine a smug bigot rising in a chamber of government to denounce a black opponent’s position as “niggardly,” savoring the word, saying it twice, drawing it out elaborately for effect. The aide’s ignorance of “niggardly” strongly suggests the word is becoming archaic. No wonder.

What, then, of the word with which it was confused? Can it ever be put up with? A couple of weeks ago the Midwest Bookhunters–80-some dealers of rare old books–held their spring fair at Navy Pier. That isn’t where they’d wanted to be. A year earlier they’d gathered at the new Gentile Center of Loyola University. The daylong fair was a success, and the Bookhunters hoped to return. But a problem arose.

During the fair a member of the Loyola security force had spotted a troubling display. “The N word was used several times in the titles of the books,” Sandra Bell told me. “Why would they have something like this on display? Hundreds of people were in there buying books.”

To Bell, an African-American, the books were both offensive and inflammatory. In a crowded building they were the sort of thing that could cause trouble. She pointed out the display to other black security guards and at the end of the fair filed a report. Soon a letter from Loyola’s “conference coordinator” put the Bookhunters on notice:

“Before we can begin to plan for a fair in the Spring of 1999 one issue must be raised and discussed. During the March 15, 1998 fair, some materials were on display that were offensive in nature to some of our staff who attended the fair. It is essential to us that we host groups that are in line with our purpose and mission as a Jesuit University. Therefore, it is important that any materials that conflict with our Jesuit tradition of upholding respect for the individual not be displayed at any future fairs.

“It is my hope that you can understand our desire to uphold our mission and purpose and why we must ask for exhibitors to comply by not displaying any materials of an offensive nature.”

Tom Zimmerman, the suburban used-book dealer whose committee oversaw the fair, received the letter. He told me last week he could only guess which books had offended the security guards. Possibly Nigger, the autobiography of Dick Gregory. Possibly Conrad’s Nigger of the “Narcissus.” “A couple of the dealers feature collectible African-American material,” he said. “Books from the 20s and 30s–it wasn’t uncommon to have that in the title.”

The point is, said Zimmerman, that the fair consisted of valuable old books displayed by reputable dealers. Surely a Jesuit university wouldn’t judge a book by its title. “We went back and forth,” he said. “I told them right away there’d be no compromise. I wouldn’t tell the dealers what to exhibit or how to exhibit.” The university suggested tucking away objectionable titles where passersby wouldn’t notice them, said Zimmerman. But dealers bring books to the fair to move them not hide them. “We wouldn’t even consider mentioning that to our dealers,” he said. “So that was about it. They weren’t going to change their minds. We weren’t going to change ours.”

Zimmerman sent a letter to members of his book-fair committee reporting the impasse. “We can in no way tell exhibitors what to display, sell, exhibit, etc,” he declared. “We will not engage in any type of censorship.”

At least two of the rare-book dealers were distressed Loyola alumni. A dealer who’d been educated at a Jesuit university in another city put this anguish into words, sending a letter of protest to the school paper, the Loyola Phoenix, which didn’t publish it.

“Many years ago, I learned from my Jesuit teachers the love of books,” began the dealer, who didn’t want his name in my story. “They taught me to read not only Thomas Aquinas but also Karl Marx; to read various authors in order to understand all sides of a question. I learned their lessons too well, and ended up with a house full of books.”

The dealer described the letter Zimmerman had received from Loyola. “The sentiments reflected in that letter are contrary to the Jesuit tradition which I was taught early in life. I wonder if the person writing it really had the authority to speak for the University in such a manner. An attitude of censorship is not what I was brought up to expect from a Jesuit institution.”

But this is a story with more than one side. Loyola’s mission statement asserts that the university exists “to preserve, extend, and transmit knowledge….Loyola values freedom of inquiry, the pursuit of truth….

Loyola University Chicago encourages all members…to develop in their lives a spirit of freedom.” It’s hard to square these values with a desire to put books in places where they can’t be seen.

But the mission statement also says this: “Loyola emphasizes ethical behavior and recognition of the dignity of each individual. As an employer, Loyola practices these same values.” Stepping in to assert the dignity of offended security guards at the expense of the outsiders who’d rented the gymnasium, Loyola might have been practicing these values to a fault.

The heart of this story, I believed for a time, lay in how Loyola weighed two clashing principles. But perhaps that didn’t happen. Thomas Joyce, a dealer who’s a Loyola grad, reminded me that back in 1990 students, supported by a couple of aldermen, had rallied to demand the resignation of a philosophy professor who’d tried to illustrate a point by calling a black student “nigger” in class. Perhaps the school simply didn’t want that kind of notoriety again.

However Loyola reasoned, it was by a process that the university was reluctant to illuminate. When we first spoke, Elizabeth Wilson, Loyola’s director of media relations, knew nothing about the Bookhunters episode. “Suffice it to say,” she told me, “that we don’t invite opportunities for offensive materials or those not consistent with our mission to be on display at the university.”

But this week Wilson was more forthcoming. She said she now understood that the materials had nothing to do with some hate group; nor were they books that–she presumed–couldn’t be found on Loyola’s own open shelves. She had tracked down Bell and others and sorted out what happened.

“The general reaction here is one of dismay,” she said. “The actions were well-intentioned but unnecessary. The whole episode is regrettable.” She said the conference coordinator who wrote Zimmerman was no more than 22 years old, should never have been assumed to have Loyola’s last word on the subject, and no longer holds the job. “I think there was some naivete at work in the original episode.”

Wilson went on, “This situation languished for a year without any official at the university being aware of it. As I’ve gone around the university and said, ‘This is the situation,’ dismay, I think, would characterize the response from officials here. The reaction is that both books [Gregory’s and Conrad’s] are classics. We all agree. No argument here. It was a series of missteps. A series of miscues.”

Wilson called Zimmerman and apologized. She told me a letter from Loyola would be going out to the Bookhunters “to express our sentiment, which is true regret,” and invite them back.

“I know how they’re trying to make it sound,” says Sandra Bell.

The instigator of the “missteps” couldn’t recall the names of the books that upset her, but she knows what they weren’t. She remembers nothing by Joseph Conrad, and she’s dead certain she wasn’t objecting to the autobiography of Dick Gregory.

“I have that book,” she tells me. “I know how to spell. That wasn’t it. I wouldn’t have been offended if there wasn’t any reason to be.”

A telecommunicator with Loyola’s security force, Bell was visiting the fair on her lunch hour looking for books to buy. She was so shocked by a display near the south entrance that she began bringing over guards on duty to see for themselves. “If you had been there and picked up the books, you’d have been offended,” she says. “The books had a lot of derogatory pictures on the front of them of black people. Believe me, I know what I saw.

“The books looked like they were from the 1900s. The paper was so old it was orange, orange, orange. It looked like it would fall apart if you picked it up and played with it. The jackets looked like they were hand drawn.” She remembers thinking that the vendor could at least have displayed the books without the jackets.

It’s puzzling that Zimmerman, the head of the fair, insists he never knew for sure what books Bell had objected to. “They were mine,” says Charles Kroon, who runs Ginkgo Leaf Books on the north side. Kroon’s wife, Joycelyn Merchant, was the Loyola fair’s hired manager.

Kroon specializes in black books. He says he had one copy of Gregory’s Nigger on display at the fair, and one copy of Nigger to Nigger, a 1928 book by E.C.L. Adams. “Not a racist book. A lot of folktales, stuff like that.”

And he had several books from the 1920s with jackets that looked like they’d been drawn on. He’s sure these were the books Bell remembers. The four titles still at his shop are Charcoal and Chalk by Virginia McCormick, Little Boy Black and Other Sketches by Betty Reynolds Cobb, Charcoal Sketches by Katharine S. Ayres, and Stray Sweepin’s by Clarence Adam White.

“I don’t know if the authors were black or white,” says Kroon. “Probably white. There were hundreds of these books, many written in black dialect. They’re historically important today.” He sells them for $50 apiece. Are they offensive? “If you judge by today’s standards–sure. A lot of things might be offensive by today’s standards. This is like judging writing about women in that period. Women today would be offended.”

Reports of His Death…

Last week I reported the likely execution of Baton Haxhiu, editor of Koha Ditore, Kosovo’s most respected newspaper. Haxhiu’s death hadn’t absolutely been pinned down when I wrote, but the Independent of London was sure enough that it published his obituary. After attending a funeral, said the Independent, “Haxhiu was abducted by Serbian security troops and murdered.”

The Independent was gracious when Haxhiu surfaced–awkwardly if miraculously–in London. “It is a good thing that the 32-year-old editor…has a dry sense of humor,” commented the newspaper, noting with implicit relief that the obituary he’d survived to read had described him as “well-read, cosmopolitan and shrewd.”

Said Haxhiu, “I heard of my death on the radio while I was hiding for five days in a basement in Pristina, and I couldn’t tell anyone it wasn’t true–not my wife, not my child, not my parents.” Certainly he’d have believed the radio, if he’d been anyone but himself. “It was quite credible,” he said. “My name was definitely on a list.”

Reports of Haxhiu’s death sent tremors through the Reader because no one here was sure at first whether he’d been part of a delegation of Kosovar journalists–most from Koha Ditore–that visited this paper in February. It turned out he hadn’t been. Someone who had–Gjeraqina Tuhina, a stringer for Radio Free Europe–also turned up in the pages of the Independent.

After making her own escape, she wrote about the strangeness of seeing so many old friends in Macedonia. “We don’t speak about the dead yet, because nothing can be confirmed. But at least we know who is alive, because we have seen each other.”

She went on, “For me, the best was seeing many of my journalist colleagues, whom I hadn’t seen for at least a week. And of these, the most important was Baton Haxhiu….I first saw him in the huge queue at the border. I recognised his car and his registration plate, seven kilometres back within Yugoslav territory. But I never thought it would be him. Of course, he was still officially dead, so obviously he was terrified, and wanted to hide. There were a lot of rumours about Serbian agents and no one felt safe until they got through the border. When I finally recognised him I went crazy. I wanted to jump and kiss him. But the look from his eyes was clear: you didn’t see me.”

Haxhiu’s escape points to what might be a fairly clever propaganda tactic. Kill the nameless and spread the story that the intellectual elite also were rounded up and slaughtered. When some eventually surface unharmed, let bystanders ponder the malignity of rumor and smile at your mercy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tom Zimmerman photo by Dan Machnik; Charles Kroon photo by Dan Machnik.