The books have been challenged by some groups for profane and derogatory language. The brothers defend their accurate depiction of the attitudes and social mores of the eras they write about by pointing out, for example. That “during the American Revolution, African Americans were referred to as ‘niggers'”. To avoid using the term would have rendered their writing less than credible, they believe.”

-Sharron L. McElmeel, (1996) in talking about the novel Jump Ship to Freedom by Christopher and James Collier; 1981

I did not learn that the early books of Jim Collier and his brother Christopher had been challenged and even removed from library shelves for the use of the word “nigger” until after the Post blasted me for printing Jim’s headline “Nigger in the White House”. Jim had offered the title for months and our editorial staff universally turned it down with something like “How could you even consider it?” However, I thought that Jim, who is 85 with many books under his name knows more about this than I do and wants to use, what now has proved to be THE most shocking article title of the year with nearly 100,000 hits on the WestView site.

Each month Jim would submit the title and each month after receiving a chorus of no’s from the editorial staff I would gently say no (Jim is a very good and funny writer and he has a big following amongst our readers so I wanted to keep him as a contributor). Indeed, in an angry moment, perhaps after the 3rd glass of wine, Jim offered to stop writing for the paper if we did not print the title (he does not remember this now).

The American Library Association has a tally of book complaints and Jim is on it from many years ago when the civil rights movement was at its peak. Perhaps, it was then that a mother discovered the word “nigger” in a book her child was reading and complained to the librarian. Now, as I say, I did not know that Jim had a 40-year history of people challenging his use of the word. I mean, after all those years of who knows how many nasty letters, it must have gotten under his skin and so he got the idea to start an article with “Nigger in the White House” and then turn it into an attack on blind bigots, and by doing so, cleanse himself of any suggestion that he was one.

OK, so Jim submits the article again for the July issue and we have a new editor who I hoped would not be so vehement in challenging it. Then I get the idea to have our new contributor, Alvin Hall, who is black, read Collier’s article and headline and comment on it. We would run the Collier article and Alvin’s response on the same page. How could I lose?

So this explains my thinking leading up to the printing but let us go back to July 1st when the paper comes out. Nothing! No nasty e-mails, no phone calls, nothing. Then on the 5th I get a call, “This is Umar Abassi.” I ask, “Umar who?” He tells me he knows me, has been at 69 Charles, lives in the neighborhood and could he come over to talk about “Nigger in the White House”?

Umar walks in with a camera with an 18 inch telephoto lens and I recognize him. He came last August as a “neighbor and friend” when I supposedly “slapped” newly elected State Senator Brad Holyman. Coincidently (whoops), a reporter from the Post also shows and I made the Post and every newspaper in New York including Wall Street Journal and the Greek Herald.

This time around, we sit in the garden and Umar talks and talks without saying anything. His job is to take and sell photographs. He has already called the Post to read them the “Nigger in the White House” title and they must have said “Oh boy that’s a Post headline” and Umar, to guarantee that he will sell the Post a photo, offers to go round to see Capsis and set up the interview. Then his cell phone rings and a Post reporter is asking if he can come now. I say “No.” I say, “Why don’t you interview Collier or Hall?” and I repeat that and repeat that. That’s when he takes a photo of me really angry and of course that is the photo they use in the Post article the next morning: Hate off the Presses and W. Village newspaper brands O with N-word .

Yes well, it gets a little more evil. While Umar is trying to make conversation, he reveals that he took a photo a few months before of a man about to be killed by a subway train and calmly alludes to the criticism “Why did he stand there clicking away why didn’t he put his camera down and pull the guy up?” He offers, “I was using the flash to alert the driver. I was using a telephoto lens so it looks like I was closer. I invited a reporter to run with me to the spot to prove I couldn’t make it.” Wow. Later, when I went online, several articles appeared that did a number on Umar and the Post. An official of the press photographer’s association offered, “If I was the night editor, I don’t think I’d run it.” However, he adds, “It’s a contract between a paper and its readers, and it’s different from paper to paper. The New York Post is not known for its subtlety in taste decisions.”

The Post ran the photo as its front page with the headline, “Pushed on the subway track this man is about to die” followed with “DOOMED”.

I picked up a copy of the Post the next day to find a headline on the important third page right side in one inch bold letters COCKS GOING LIMP referring to an innocuous story on infertile roosters. The Post is a headline newspaper for people who don’t get much beyond them before they go to sports. And here I want to add a small inside note: reporters never write the headline even for their own articles. That is done by a headline writer and they delight in headlines like the one written by Variety the day after the crash “Wall Street Lays an Egg”.

The Post is headline journalism and nearly all the hundreds of calls and e-mail postings we received regarding our headline were from people who never read beyond the headline.

OK, bottom line, I should never have allowed that title- that word to be printed – that word is the most offensive in the American language. Even sympathetic friends and relatives after I explain why I thought I could print the title smile patronizingly and say something like “Well what makes you think you could print it?” It is no good for me to say Collier was the villain because he had a 40-year hang-up on all the attacks he received for using that word and I cannot blame him. No, I made the error and I was wrong and I apologize.

After the Post story my phone began to ring and rang and rang, right through the night for two days.

“I’m from Texas – attah boy give it to them” and “ you must have had a hard day” and even though this guy was probably sitting in his Klan robes I was grateful and accepted his sympathy. I was about to pay a very high price for my error – a very high price.

Black callers were universally polite (I got two reverends). One woman who collected Obama memorabilia wanted a copy for her collection. I thought after, they will probably become valuable. A caller from Hawaii told my answering machine that we were “maggots” but perhaps the strangest call was from a male I thought was white who went on in an in meandering fashion. I could not tell if he was a WASP liberal or a Tea Party fascist and at last I asked politely if he were black. With a chuckle he admitted he was and nobody could tell on the phone and that his father use to say “I am white with a black skin” which reminds us that prejudiced is on a sliding scale and does not abruptly stop for those who’s gene count edges into the “negro” end of the scale.

OK, as I said, I should never have permitted the Collier title and for that I apologize.

The day after the Post article, I picked up the business card of photographer Umar Abassi to discover a list of publications in which Umar suggests his photos have appeared beginning with The London Sunday Times and towards the bottom after The New York Post is “WestView”.

Leave a Reply