So, here’s the hubbub:
A new, compound edition of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer is coming out, in which all instances of the word ‘nigger’ are replaced with the word ‘slave’.
I have mixed feelings about this.
On the one hand, a word as hateful and incindiary as ‘nigger’ can easily distract from the rest of the text. Huckleberry Finn includes a great amount of horrible racism, this is true, but the story is about more than that. The inclusion of a racial slur (over two hundred times, I might add) makes it difficult for any classroom discussion to focus on any aspect of the book besides the treatment of African Americans during that time period. Also, some parents are afraid that if their children see the word used so casually by the titular hero, their children will think that it is a super fantastic great word that should be used at every opportunity.
I can understand why people would want to remove the word ‘nigger’. I really do.
I just completely don’t agree with it.
Maybe this is coming from my position as a writer, but it seems like some sort of deep blasphemy to change the text in concession to a bunch of angry people. That word, horrible and debilitating as it may be, contributes to the central tone of the novel. It characterizes the period in a way that all the straw hats and Aunt Pollies can’t. The nineteenth century was a different world. A world that was pretty dang unkind to black people. To whitewash that is to both deny the difficulties of the African Americans that lived then and to withhold vital context from readers. The context of Huckleberry Finn’s adventures, as well as the context of our own culture.
I was listening to NPR today as I drove home for lunch, and a caller (a former high school teacher and lecturer) defended the position to change the text of Huckleberry Finn.
“Now,” said the host of the show, “do you think that Mark Twain would object to this change in his work?”
“Well, Mark Twain was a great proponent of change,” said the caller. “He changed things a great deal. He changed his signature outfit, you know, that white suit that he wore towards the end of his life. He changed his lectures while he traveled. He even…that’s why his autobiography was so long coming. Editors didn’t know what to do with it, because he had changed it so many times. I think Mark Twain would be happy to see Huckleberry Finn changed this way. It’s a signal that we don’t accept, you know, we don’t accept that behavior anymore. Anywhere. And really after a hundred and fifty years, that book doesn’t belong to Mark Twain anymore. It belongs to America, and America doesn’t want to see the n-word in books that their children are reading.”
At that point I swung the steering wheel to the right and crashed my car into a ditch, where it exploded, just like in the movies, sending me to Hell in a fiery inferno of righteous indignation. In that particular Hell, I was forced to read editions of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe where none of the kids had swords anymore because swords are dangerous, and copies of Lolita that had enigmatically managed to eliminate all references to pedophilia and sex. Alice In Wonderland had been stripped of any conceivable references to drug trips, which left the entire story a single page: “Alice took a nap and then went home.”
Of course, Catcher In The Rye had been removed from existence entirely, because didn’t it brainwash that guy into killing John Lennon? I think it may have. We can’t take that risk.
For all my blustering, I do want to reiterate that I can understand wanting to change the text so that it is less distracting to teachers who want to focus on Mark Twain’s biting satire and colloquial wit.
I still can’t endorse it.
What do you think, Internet? This is one of those Pretty Important Issues, and I’m eager to hear opinions.
Edit: Dang, I wrote this one on the fly and there were some pretty egregious typos in here. They should be fixed now. Have you read the comments yet? There are some pretty great ones.