On the evening of November sixth, 1860, I had studied Tacitus until almost midnight. I had just started preparing for bed when I heard the clatter of hooves in the yard. As I looked out the window of my tiny second story room and down upon the carriage house, I saw a negro on a lathered horse, leading a second horse with an empty saddle. He looked like James, my father’s groom, so I dressed quickly and went down.
At the time I was living with Mr. Harding, a thin, quiet man who tutored Latin, while I prepared for the Naval Academy at Anapolis. He had a windy old house off the main street of Baltimore where five students boarded. We all needed Latin, and he had agreed to drill it into us no matter how thick our skulls.
James was having an argument with Mr. Harding’s housekeeper when I came down the stairs. “Massa Matthew,” he said with some relief, “this woman won’t let me in. I told her I come for you.”
“It’s all right, Mrs. Brown,” I reassured her. “James belongs to my father.”
“Massa Williams sent me,” James said. “He wants you to pack your bags and come to Washington City right away, tomorrow.”
“Mr. Lincoln been elected.”
It was like walking down a staircase and finding a step missing. I couldn’t believe it. But here was James, rumpled and a little scared, coming in out of the night with a message from my father that I had to obey.
It would mean war.
Yikes. Page one and I’m already in trouble.
These are the first few paragraphs of Voices in the Walls, as written. I’ve cleaned up any grammatical and spelling errors, but otherwise it is just as it came from the keyboard. And as it will stand, as well.
But it hurts my ears, grinds my gears, and makes my stomach ache. The problem is the word Massa.
For me, Massa is more offensive than nigger. You can call a man a nigger, but that doesn’t make him one. But if a man – or a character you are writing – says Massa, it is degrading. He is saying, “I am less than a man.” He is saying, “You’re the boss. Whatever you say goes, and I don’t have any say in the matter.”
But I can’t substitue a less offensive word for the one that would actually be used. I have a solemn compact with my readers to tell the truth.