It’s one of the most misunderstood books of all time, and yet still one of the first titles we think of when we try to name The Great American Novel: Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel that seared itself into English literature curriculum for its subtle and satirical criticism of slavery and antebellum racism. T.S. Elliot declared it a masterpiece. Ernest Hemingway called it the source of “all modern American literature.”
But with the advent and infiltration of political correctness and color blindness in schools, Huck Finn slowly started fading away from the English classroom–not because of the book’s themes, but its language. Or rather one offensive word in particular, repeated 219 times throughout the entire storyline– the n-word, which was thrown around during Twain’s time like Halloween candy, but is now rightfully shunned by the mainstream.
For the past several decades, Huck and Jim have been rafting around on banned booklists and optional reading ones at best. According to Banned in the USA by Herbert N. Foerstal, Huck Finn is the fourth most banned book in schools.
Twain defined a classic novel as “a book people praise and don’t read.” That is why Twain scholar Alan Gribben is working with NewSouth Books in Alabama to replace all of the n-word’s 219 appearances in Huck Finn, and its four cameos in Tom Sawyer with the word “slave.” He’s also changing “Injun Joe” in Tom Sawyer to “Indian Joe” and “half-breed” to “half-blood.”
“It’s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers,” said Gribben, a white man who grew up outside of the South and never heard the n-word during his childhood. “You can’t open a page of Huckleberry Finn without getting into race,” he told the BBC. Mr. Gribben, I think that’s the point of the book.
Another point of the book– Jim was a free man. How muddled does that point become when he’s constantly referred to as a slave? It simplifies antebellum attitudes as “slavery,” not racist, and that was a topic Twain has always been known to not shy away from.
“He was profoundly a Victorian gentleman,” said Twain biographer Ron Powers. “It mattered to him if his wife approved of what he wrote and he was eager to please the public. But there were categories, like race, before which he was intrepid. In San Francisco before the Civil War, he was run out of town because he was criticizing the police for beating up Chinese people.”
“This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind,” said Gribben. “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”
Forgive me for not fully understanding Gribben’s point. I learned my first racial slur from Tom Sawyer in the 20th century. Growing up in St. Louis, we were all required to read Tom Sawyer and the Little House series in elementary school. In third grade, we had to come up with a list of five words at the beginning of the week we came across in reading, memorize their definitions, and then we were quizzed that Friday. I remember one week I saw the word “Injun” in Tom Sawyer, didn’t know what it meant, and I put it on my list. My teacher caught it and told me I had to choose another vocabulary word.
Of course, that just piqued my interest even more, so finally she said, “It’s a mean word people used to use to say Native American. But now we use the word Native American, and we don’t say that other word because it’s mean, so when you use that word, it’s like you’re calling a Native American a mean name. But you have to understand that the people who used that word during Tom Sawyer’s time weren’t necessarily bad people. The word Native American didn’t exist during Tom’s time, and he lived during a time when it was okay to be mean to African-Americans and Native Americans. But now that’s not okay anymore, especially because we have a word now we can call Native Americans and not hurt their feelings.”
It’s simplistic, but there was such a truth from that explanation, I never thought twice about the word after that, because to my child mind, Tom didn’t know any better but to use slurs towards blacks and Native Americans. Just like I wanted to fit in with the adults around me, I thought maybe he used those slurs to fit in with adults around him. I actually started feeling sorry for him for not knowing any better, and if anything, that taught me how to embrace racial sensitivity outside of the fragile bubble of political correctness. Just like you can’t really learn compassion without pain, I feel like you also can’t learn sensitivity without also knowing how to hurt others. It doesn’t mean you will, but it’s a boundary you learn to use.
When I heard the word “nigger” in Roots several years later, I actually felt sorry for the slaveowners, not only because they didn’t know any better, but also because slurs like that translated out to me as helplessness (like Tom Sawyer felt as a child), and they were just bad words people said to make themselves sound bigger and stronger. A simplistic childlike view, but at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if that’s the context students need to encounter racial slurs in, rather than shielding them all together.
Awful as these attitudes towards blacks were, they’re still part of American history, and while we’re not proud of it, we can’t downplay its verbal existence, especially because it still lingers in racial and ethnic repercussions today that can’t be censored away from students. I don’t like that slavery and antebellum racism existed, but they did, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t censor history.
The only thing worse than racism’s occurrence is my denial of it, because downplaying oppression or pretending it never happened only sets us up to repeat history, only worse, because we should know better. To sugarcoat documented history and the literature that represents it is to breed willful ignorance.
The bottom line is that the n-word meant something then, and it still means something today. To take it out of these two books rather than use it as a vehicle for discussion is to gloss over a time and culture that Twain deliberately depicted to bring attention to how commonplace racism was at this given point of American history.
Mark Twain said, “A sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience.” Instead of shying away from the existence of the n-word, teachers should use it deliberately and sensitively to shed light on race relations. If they don’t, then it could mutate into the same attitude, but directed towards other people, such as women, other races, even less privileged classes, or in the case of recent events, those who differ from us politically.
When the word “crosshairs” is thrown around as loosely as the n-word was to invoke violent discourse, it makes shootings like the one that occurred this past weekend no different than a lynching.
“If you define ‘niggers’ as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society are defined by others, then Good News! You don’t have to be black to be a ‘nigger’ in this society,” Congressional Black Caucus founder and former US Congressman Ron Dellums famously said in defense of John Lennon’s Woman is the Nigger of the World. “Most of the people in America are ‘niggers.’”
The political correctness waves of the ’90s did more than lower rhetoric down to the lowest common denominator. They also devalued language to the point where it’s okay to castrate a writer of his words and it’s okay to use sloppy political metaphor to endorse the same hatred that Twain eschewed in his very meticulously-chosen words.
“He presumably would have been quick to adapt his language if he could have foreseen how today’s audiences recoil at racial slurs in a culturally altered country,” Gribben wrote in the new version’s introduction, who described Twain as “a notoriously commercial writer who watched for every opportunity to enlarge the mass market for his works.”
But that defense is a cop-out, and I really hope Gribben is insightful enough to see that. “You can’t assume that and then use that as a pretext for eviscerating a work of art,” said Powers.
“I think it’s clear that Mark Twain wants you to be disturbed by this word,” Twain scholar Bob Hirst said. “I mean, there’s plenty of evidence that he was not comfortable using it in his own voice.”
“The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is…the difference between the lightning bug and the lighting,” Twain wrote.
Censorship is how you mutilate a writer, and on some level, when you’re dealing with words that were craftfully chosen, there is no difference between omission and substitution.
Sterilize literature, and you sabotage history. Which only leaves you with an altered manuscript and a failed duty to preserve the authenticity of these proud voices we stake our nation’s identity on.
Photo courtesy of Project Gutenberg via Wikimedia Commons