Imagine that you're the fiction editor of a well-respected magazine, a publication that has devoted untold pages to some of the biggest names in the writing business. One day you're digging through the submissions and you stumble upon one that catches your eye. Maybe it's the title. Perhaps it's the first paragraph. Whatever it is, you decide to give it your full attention. What you've found is an interesting story narrated by a young African American. On the most basic level, it's about the revenge of a cuckolded husband, a plot you've seen a million and two times. So what's the twist to this one? Well, to start, the narrator isn't your typical teenager. He can quote the Classics like no one's business. His father makes sure of that, spitting out lines from Virgil and Aeschylus and making the boy finish the sentence or quizzing him on the origin or some other detail related to the quote. And we're not talking a northern prep schooler here. This is a rural family, Southern, probably poor. So what does this have to do with the cuckolded father? Well, the man has decided to use this act of revenge, what will end up being the murder of a lifelong friend, as a lesson for the boy, another brick in his Classical foundation. He has the boy tag along to the friend's house where they find him "in his recliner in front of the television watching wrestling and eating a can of pork and beans." Before long, the father and son go through this somewhat hilarious routine, an absurd Abbott and Costello, where they go back and forth quoting and referencing the Classics, basically confusing the hell out of this poor guy who just wanted to watch his wrestling. Maybe that's why it reminds you a little of a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie. Or maybe it's the way they ultimately kill him. First the father decides to take out the poor guy's appendages, shooting him in the arms and legs, an act of torture forcing the man to admit his transgression. But in the end, it's the son, angered by the man's repeated attempts to invoke the name of the Lord, who grabs the gun and, after quoting Keats--"Truth is beauty"--shoots the man in the head. What really gets you is the fact that the father doesn't seem upset by the act, but he's rather miffed that the boy would utter a quote from a Romantic. Didn't the boy learn anything?
So you like the story with its interesting take on a fairly common plot. In fact, you like it enough to publish it in your venerable magazine. However, there's one nagging question, one that needs to be put to rest before you're willing to put this one in a future issue. See, one of the more disturbing parts of this story is the use of the n word. There it is, first page, used several times by the father who is trying to make the boy understand that what they are about to do "does not make us niggers." As the fiction editor of a well-respected publication with a vast, mostly educated and often liberal readership, you know that that word is a powder keg waiting to go off, and when it does, it'll probably take you with it. So what do you do? The story deserves to be published, that much is established, but only under one condition. See, you probably don't hang with many black folks but you do know that they tend to use the word quite a bit. After all, you've heard the rap music. So if this writer is an African American, well, then it's a go, the writer's race being a potential "Get out of PC jail free" card. Now, how do you find out if he's black? He doesn't say so in his cover letter, but he did say that he went to the University of Arkansas, and damn if you don't know a professor there. A simple phone call, a question, and holy mother of Mark Twain, this writer isn't black. He's a white Southerner.
What do you do?
You reject the story, right?
Well, that's what The Atlantic did. Or something like that anyway.