everybody’s talking about it

05 Jan

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.


Posted by on January 5, 2011 in Uncategorized


14 responses to “everybody’s talking about it

  1. Alexandra

    January 5, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Holy….!!! What the F***?!

    I, as a woman, have felt the sting in the topics of rape and oppression found in so many classics (and in the books that I had to read in High School). But, I, as an intelligent human being would not even dream of changing the texts. How effing pretentious!

    High School English teachers, and parents of HS students, and black folks alike, need to rise to the challenge and deal with it. It happened. It’s over. It’s a book. Don’t even think of touching it!

    Holy crap if we all jumped when I cried, you all would be living in MY world. This world does not belong to one Race. Nor one Gender. Nor one Religion.

    This needs to be nipped in the bud before we all lose our sanity trying to cater to every Tom, Dick and Harry…and Sally, and Sheneequa.

    Are there any books in which the author uses the words “honkey” or “cracker” or “little woman” or “weaker sex”? If so, I’d like to have them changed immediately! [sarcasm font]

    For the love of god!

    • Alexandra

      January 5, 2011 at 5:35 pm

      *whew* okay. I’m better now. Thanks for letting me vent. What I really meant to say is, “What is this world coming to?”

      But what I’d really like to know is, who says ‘nigger’ is still a bad word? Is it the street gangs? or the white folks? Or the slave owners who no longer exist? Because “Bitch’ used to be a bad word, and to some women it no longer is. Who decided that? Why don’t we deal with *that* instead of changing the text of a classic book without the writer’s permission?

      Yeah, ‘slave’. much better. [sarcasm font, again]

  2. Ashley

    January 5, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Yes, the word is horrible, yes it does make it awkward to teach in schools, but regardless of that it’s part of the book, plain and simple. To change it would be like saying to authors “don’t write anything that makes us uncomfortable because when you’re dead we’ll totally screw up the book you worked so hard to create by taking out all the naughty bits.” A good teacher, like I had, can still touch on all the different aspects of the book, while avoiding focusing solely on the racial one.
    I think the biggest problem with all of this is that once one book is “edited” like this, who’s to say people wont start doing it with others? How far are we allowed do go in altering an author’s work?

    PS- The book should be changed because Twain changed his suit? And because he changed his mind a couple times, as humans are wont to do? Whaaa…?!

  3. MK

    January 5, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    I can see the validity — or desire, at least — to create a “school” edition of the book. In my perfect world, this book might instead replace the offensive word with “n——,” more like bleeping out profanity on the radio, leaving a hole rather than a new word with a different meaning. No matter how you parse it, “slave” does not equal “nigger” in meaning. And this book would contain a discussion section on the word, its use when the book was written, and maybe some critical commentary on why the word was deleted, for use by either really enterprising students who read the “extra” section or by really excellent teachers who wanted to address the issues that literature raises rather than hide behind some BS about changing literature being akin to changing your suit.

    • Alexandra

      January 5, 2011 at 7:43 pm

      Hmmm, a compromise. Good point MK. I could certainly stomach reading “n—” better than changing the word into something completely different. I’d rather not read the word ‘nigger’ over 200 times in a book.

      But it’s a slippery slope when you start editing a dead author’s work.

      I’m still against any change. But I could live with ‘n—‘ if I had to, only in an effort to create a “school edition” for folks.

  4. Katie

    January 5, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Hah – we’ve put this in tomorrow’s links, so it looks like everyone’s talking about it.

    As both a writer and, more importantly, an interpretive specialist, I strongly object to anything that changes history. Twain’s text is not just a novel, it’s a historical document – both as a reflection and representation of a period of American history and as a catalyst for censorship, protest and debate.

    I remember a discussion in the museum world in which an individual proposed replacing the word “slave” with the term “enslaved African Americans” in the interpretation of a historical site in Delaware. A huge debate ensued, but at the end of the day to change the word was to change history, and doing that does no one – not the people who lived in that world nor the people who learn about it now – any justice. Yes, the word “nigger” is a horrible word. But what happens when you stop acknowledging its history and power? The word doesn’t go away.

    In my opinion, this is “revisionist history” at its worst – changing the past to suit the needs of the present.

  5. Julia B

    January 6, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Blargh, this is a tough one. Many good points have been raised. I too dislike the idea of changing literature (and it is indeed a slippery slope), but frankly, a lot of the classics we read are abridged or edited without our even knowing it (look at the Count of Monte Cristo, it’s difficult to find an unabridged version). As a kid, I read an entire set of heavily abridged and simplified classics – they were some of my favourite books. At that age, I never would have made it through the real Secret Garden or Swiss Family Robinson. Because I loved the abridged versions so, I picked up the unabridged versions as a teen, while had I attempted real versions at a younger age, I probably would have never picked them up again (I still carry a distinct grudge against Hemingway). Hence, I feel there is a very real value in interpreting adult literature for children. It’s very much like a translation, and should be undertaken with all the same caution, effort, and pursuit of communicating the true nature of the book. And obviously, there are many novels where the central message and content of the book isn’t something young kids are ready for, and in these cases, a children’s version becomes a false, pointless, and demeaning caricature.

    I think I’m with MK on this one. It’s an important historical issue that needs to be addressed and not avoided, but I think using n– would achieve the same purpose, while subtly impressing upon kids the inappropriate nature of the word instead of desensitizing them to it. Using ‘slave’ doesn’t achieve any of the above purposes, and frankly, just sounds out of place.

    This is a really tough issue, because there is so much disagreement about what is “appropriate” for children in our culture, with certain groups wanting to censor ideas that I (and many others) feel are REALLY important to address in school (intolerance, sexuality, etc), and on the other side some parents not wanting to censor anything but not giving their kids an outlet to discuss and process things that they may not be ready to handle on their own.

  6. Julia B

    January 6, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Also, the hilarious irony: “The new ‘Huckleberry Finn’ – where Jim is shackled, beaten & kept as human livestock, but nobody calls him any bad words.”
    -John Fugelsang

  7. Gramma

    January 7, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    Hmmmm. As a mom and grandmother I find it offensive that any generation think they have the right to change (or make acceptable according to current thought?) an authors work. So much can be lost. Where is the measure of change if you sanitize your world and your history so that no one is offended? Changing the original words of an author from any time period is obscene.

  8. Alice

    January 9, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Well, I read Huckleberry Finn in school approximately two months ago. My teacher told us, about eighty times per class, that the interesting thing about Huck was that he presented a character with “a good conscience, but corrupted morals” — that is, he wanted to do what was right, but what he had been taught was right and what he felt was right were two different things. Society taught Huck that Jim was somebody’s property, and the conflict throughout the book is that Huck feels that “stealing” somebody’s property is wrong. Mark Twain’s point in writing Huckleberry Finn was to highlight the wrongness of slavery — and if you take out that word, you *do* lose a lot of that wrongness.

    @Julia B: The problem with anaesthetizing Huckleberry Finn so that it can be taught in high school is that it changes the tone — and as a highschooler, I know that highschoolers don’t need Huck Finn to be sanitized in this way. The first time I tried to read Huck Finn was in eighth grade, and I wasn’t able to slog through it at that point, but seventeen, eighteen year olds are well able to handle this particular word. Besides, changing “nigger” to “slave” doesn’t make Huck Finn any easier to read.

    I think this book edit is atrocious. Society seems to be viewing words as inherently racist, when in reality, the words are harmless — it’s the attitude in which the words are said, and the actions that accompany the words that hurt people. As such, changing the word “nigger” to “slave” doesn’t fix any problems — it just delays having to face the real issue.

  9. Kelly

    January 10, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    I think editing the book would be just as ridiculous as editing slavery or racism or wars or famine out of actual history books. Unpleasant topics shouldn’t just be swept under the rug because they are unpleasant.

  10. rubybastille

    January 11, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    Wait. No. His autobiography took so long to come out because he TOLD them to wait that long.

    This whole situation is a bundle of stupid.

  11. Jules

    January 12, 2011 at 5:52 am

    Hey there, longtime lurker/never commenter speaking.
    My first reaction to any kind of book editing of this kind is NO…for me it brings to mind outrightly banning books because somebody doesn’t “like” the content (Harry Potter anyone?)
    On the other hand, the n-word is incredibly offensive….today. THat’s the point. This is an OLD book, dealing with a completely different period of time, in which black people, and woman were treated horribly. That’s the truth. Nobody can change that. All we can do is learn from history, and if we just erase or edit he parts of it we don’t like today, then there is absolutely no point in talking about it.
    I’m from Germany, so maybe I have a different relation to the issue of slavery, but somehow this feels like editing a book about the Nazis that is read in schools here (such as Anne Frank’s diary)and changing the numerous antisemitic and hateful words in there….sounds stupid, no?
    But, I DO think that reading such difficult material needs to be done in the right way. A teacher could draw a lesson from a student’s discomfort or rage, like: ” I see this word or idea makes you uncomfortable…why do you think it didn’t make people uncomfortable back then, or only some people? What has changed, and what happened to MAKE things change”….and so on.

    Hope this makes sense, it’s a really interesting topic I think.


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