A brief warning that there are some racist terms ahead. Readers sensitive to racial slurs might want to skip this post. Thanks.
I have been doing some very haphazard research for my current work in progress, which I thought would be a Beauty and the Beast retelling, set in New Russia (in territory that is now the country of Ukraine) in 1790. I kept seeing a main character in my head who I thought was a black eunuch, and the more I tried to research this character, the more apparent it became that this man was not a eunuch, but he had almost become one. I originally thought the antagonist of the story (a powerful sorcerer) had purchased him from the Ottoman Empire — but it turns out she bought him from one of the castration centers in Europe, places that castrated young boys to sell to the Ottomans.
(The Ottoman Empire had white as well as black eunuchs, and gave them different roles to perform as slaves. Many slave boys were castrated in Europe and then sold to the Ottomans, which was a lucrative business for Europeans, even though around 90% of the boys bled to death from the procedure.)
My character-who-is-not-a-eunuch is named Andre. Usually, I can hear a character in my head long before I can see them. In the case of Andre, I could only hear him singing, and then I could see him — and finally, on Easter Sunday, he started talking to me. Even though I’m not working on his story right now, and am not even writing at all, Andre sure has a lot to say. Hearing his speech felt like a major breakthrough, so much that I kept telling my husband, “I feel intense joy right now,” and then said, “I can hear him, he’s really alive now,” while tapping the side of my head. Greg just gave me this worried look and said I should never admit these things to people, ever, because I sound like I need medication.
Since Andre is black, I wondered what kind of racist slurs Russians have for black people, since Americans have negro, n*gger, colored, coon, buck, ape, monkey, tar baby, etc. etc. The antagonist needed a realistic term to call this slave of hers, since I’m writing historical fantasy, and racism is endemic to modern history.
I discovered today that a particular Turkish word for black — zenci — is a pretty awful derogatory term for black people. Calling someone a zenci is to say they are ignorant, lazy, lower class — as well as being a term for those with black skin.
In Russia, it turns out people use the terms apes and monkeys for black people — but behind their backs, not to their faces. Which is similar to most of the overt racism I witness in my everyday life, wherein white people who use the word n*gger do so only among other white people, and sometimes they use it in a kind of academic, historical way to voice their protest against “the f*cking P.C. culture that is ruining America.” I’m around a number of white people who hate the thought of being politically correct, and the phrase “P.C. culture” is just kind of everywhere these days. I’ve never been around a person of color who has expressed contempt for “P.C. culture” but I frequently encounter rage against political correctness among white people.
But anyway, back to my research. Here is the word “black” in Russian:
Which is pronounced “chernyy” — at least, according to my google search, it is pronounced that way.
Closely related, the word “chorny” is a Ukrainian or East Slavic term for black. Some Ukrainian Americans use the word “chorn” to refer to someone they think is stupid or lesser, and while the word can be used as a racial slur for people with black skin, anyone can be called a “chorn.” But from what I gleaned about this word online, the fundamental “slur” in this word is racist, rather than ableist.
Chorny was also the name of a black-haired goat I knew once, when I was a child. Chorny was owned by a man I’ll call Lenny, who was an acquaintance of my father’s. Lenny also owned two Rottweilers, some guns, and a wrecked Grand Am that sat in his yard. He lived on the far end of a trailer park with his girlfriend and her three children, who were all around my age at the time, between five and ten.
I remember the last day I ever saw Chorny, which was the day I helped bury her, while two of my younger brothers waited in our dad’s truck. Lenny owed my dad some money, so my dad went to his place to collect. This was in 1987 or 1988, when I was seven or eight. My brothers and I rode in the pickup bed, which was nice, since it was a hot summer day. Lenny lived in a different town, so this journey took at least a half hour, probably more.
When we arrived at the trailer home, however, Lenny and his girlfriend were gone. Lit out of town, my dad said, to avoid paying their debts. They had taken the three children with them, but they’d left Lenny’s pets — and they’d left them locked up inside.
The Rottweilers were always chained up, because both dogs were vicious and would bite. Each of Lenny’s girlfriend’s three kids had been bitten before, and I never went close to those animals when we came over. Chorny was a really sweet goat though, and she loved anyone who would pet her. When Lenny left, he chained the two dogs up in different rooms in the trailer, so they wouldn’t attack each other. My dad banged on the front door, even though he’d guessed Lenny had moved, and then he noticed a lot of blood had seeped out from beneath the door, and had pooled on the little wood deck.
So my dad opened the door, looked around, and then called for me to walk over to Lenny’s junk pile and bring him a tarp. I located a filthy piece of frayed plastic, a tarp that had once been blue but had darkened greenish-black with mold, took the rotten thing to my father, and then I saw for myself what had left all that blood in the house.
One of the two Rottweilers had gotten loose and killed Chorny, eviscerated her and severed her head. The blood on the deck was all hers. Both the Rottweilers were dead, too — they had inflicted fatal wounds on each other. One of the dogs was still chained in the back bedroom, and the other had bled to death in the area that had once held the couch.
With the help of a broken snow shovel, my dad and I pushed Chorny and her guts onto the tarp, carried her outside, and buried her. My brothers were told to stay in the truck, and they did. I told them the dogs were dead, and they were glad, because those Rottweilers scared the sh*t out of them. My dad and I washed off our hands with a garden hose, and then we left.
If my dad were still alive, I would ask him if Lenny had Ukrainian or Slavic heritage, and if that was why he had named his black-haired goat Chorny. Or maybe someone else had named the goat Chorny, before she became Lenny’s property.
As to my current work in progress, I doubt I will use any of these specific slurs in my book. None of these terms resonated with my story at all, but they definitely registered with my own memories, and my life.