spaceyear 2004

A Word about the Negro Problem

The Negro problem bedeviling Gant Industries should not be confused with the African-American problem, which was simply that there weren’t any African-Americans anymore, or any black Africans either for that matter, at least not that you could invite over to your house for dinner. Back at the turn of the century a literal Black Plague, its origin and cause still completely unknown, had turned inner cities across the Unites States into overnight ghost towns, emptied Nigeria and three-dozen other sub-Saharan nations, and sent the scant handfuls of survivors fleeing to an ever more remote series of hidden sanctuaries. Celebrated disaster chronicler Tad Winston Peller had written a book about it, the runaway bestseller They Say It Started in Idaho: Tales of the Black Pandemic of Twenty-Ought-Four. This popular worked had served as the basic text for no less than seven miniseries, not to mention a weekly science-fiction drama, Dark Heart, Red Planet, about a family of jazz-loving astronauts who escape extinction by being on Mars at the time of the plague outbreak.

But all of that is another story. The Negro problem had nothing to do with disease of cable television; it was solely a consumer-marketing phenomenon.

The Self-Motivating Android—test-marketed by a Disney subsidiary in 2003 and mass-produced by the fledgling Gant Industries as the Gant Automatic Servant starting in 20o7—achieved initial prominence as a cost-effective industrial labor substitute. The first Androids were only vaguely humanoid in appearance, intended to be functional rather than eye-pleasing, but Harry Gant, looking ahead to a time when his Servants would be affordable in the home as well as in mines and factories, insisted on a more aesthetic design. And so from 2010 on it became possible to purchase Automatic Servants in a wide selection of realistic skin tones and somatotypes. Gant, a great believer in offering variety to his customers, certainly didn’t ask his sales force to push any one particular model over another; he was as surprised as anyone when Configuration AS204 – your Automatic Servant in basic black – began outselling all other versions combined by a margin of ten to one.

For a long while it didn’t appear that there would be any public relations problem. People didn’t seem to mind—in fact seemed strangely comforted by—the sudden profusion of dark-skinned Servants, all them polite and hard-working to a fault. The ace of corporate advertising is the basic human desire to minimize or look awake from gross unpleasantness, to which end the AS204s acted like an army of Sidney Poitiers and Hattie McDaniels dispatched to exorcise the memory of the African Pandemic; but the flipside of that ace is the peril of lurking guilt, and when Harry Gant was told about a D.A.R. heiress who had purchased 300 servants for use in a sort of antebellum theme park on her plantation estate, he used his advertorial influence to keep the media away from the story.

He couldn’t stop American idiom, though. The Oxford University philologist kept on retainer by Gant’s Department of Public Opinion estimated that the expression “Electric Negro” had entered the English vernacular sometime between 2014 and 2016.

“Electric Negro”: an unkind nickname that, in addition to being terribly disrespectful of the dead, summoned up a host of images that Gant Industries did not want associated with a quality product like the Automatic Servant. It had begun cropping up in print and video several years ago: a trickle of usages in various nationally circulated publications, as well as a sly reference on one of the late-night talk shows, to which Vanna Domino and the Public Opinion Department had responded with a barrage of outraged faxes and threats of an advertising boycott. For a while the problem seemed to evaporate, only to reappear after a Delaware country-metal band released a hit CD entitled Electric Negroes on the Neon Prairie. As of this August, even the Wall Street Journal had used the expression, in a headline no less, and the battle to keep “Electric Negro” out fo the media stylebooks appeared to have been lost.

And that was the Negro problem. Not a big problem, Harry Gant would have been the first to point out: so far, sales had not suffered in the slightest, and the general public remained quite happy with their Servants, no matter what they might call them.

-Matt Ruff,  Sewer, Gas & Electric


~ by ironcupshrug on 01/13/2011.

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