Sat 8 Jan, 2011
Tags: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Censorship, Mark Twain, Melissa Harris-Perry, N-word, Tom DeWolf
By now, most readers will no doubt have heard that the “n-word” has been removed from a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by NewSouth Books, replaced throughout the book with the word “slave.”
I’ve been asked repeatedly, over the last several days, what I think of this idea. The answer, which may surprise some, is that I entirely support the idea of censoring Huckleberry Finn to remove the “n-word”—as long as the word is actually censored (blacked out, blanked out, replaced with square brackets, etc.) rather than replaced with a very different word like “slave.”
Why the distinction, and why am I willing to see Twain’s work altered at all?
Ordinarily, I’m vehemently opposed to censorship, and especially to censoring historical reality to conform to our modern sensibilities. If historical materials, including works of fiction, depict uncomfortable truths, then I think we should confront those truths. While there is no reason to dwell on the horrors of history, sanitizing our past in this way allows us to deceive ourselves about how we reached this point, losing valuable perspectives and lessons about human nature along the way.
However, many Americans, myself included, cannot appreciate just how painful the “n-word” is to those who grew up hearing the word, and associating it with the most painful memories of the pre-civil rights era. For these, mostly (but not always) older, Americans, the “n-word” invokes the worst aspects of our society’s long history of race-based slavery, discrimination, and degradation. It was used by many white Americans for generations as the worst sort of insult and is forever associated, for many people, with the ugliest aspects of racism. (The “n-word” is thus very different from the word “injun,” which is insulting and still painful for some, but not to nearly the same degree.)
This is not always easy for me, and for many of my peers, to remember. We grew up hearing this word only in historical contexts (including, for me and for many others, in the pages of Huckleberry Finn). It was clearly an ugly word, but there are many other such words, for a variety of groups, that we learned had been used in the past. The “n-word” is especially likely, for many of us, to arise in purely academic discussions. I was already a graduate student at Harvard when a faculty member, Randall Kennedy, wrote his book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, addressing the history and significance of the word (including in Huckleberry Finn). I have used the word myself, many times, in my own writing and public appearances, including most recently yesterday, when I wrote about the use of the “n-word” by draft rioters during the Civil War.
I am, however, mindful that I will never appreciate the full emotional impact that the “n-word” has for so many people, and I cannot criticize those who wish it would never be uttered, or set down in print, again—even for the purpose of discussing or condemning it.
I cannot agree to go quite as far as these people would like, but I see no reason why we cannot remove the word from an edition of a book intended for schoolchildren. I think it’s important to expose children to this word carefully and deliberately, and avoid any risk that they will start talking about the word casually, even if they do not endorse its meaning. I do believe it’s important to have uncensored versions of the book for more serious literary purposes, and I would never want children to get the impression that the edition they were reading was uncensored. This is one reason why I would want the censorship to be obvious, with the word blacked out, blanked out, or put in square brackets with space in-between, each and every time the word should appear.
I cannot agree with altering Twain’s work to use the word “slave” in place of the “n-word.” Wiser voices than mine, including those of Tom DeWolf and Melissa Harris-Perry, have already pointed out what insanity this is. This usage changes the meaning and the tone of Twain’s words, and it does serve to sanitize the book for the comfort of modern audiences, which I do not believe is, and certainly should not be, the point of censoring the book for children.
This compromise, like the edition that is actually coming out, offers the benefit of putting Twain’s words into the hands of more children than is currently the case, because so many school districts today are reluctant to use offer students the original book. My solution, however, has the added benefit of ensuring that children realize that they’re missing something, and not internalize ideas and expressions that Twain never intended.
I would still urge any school district to use the unexpurgated version of Mark Twain’s famous work. As Melissa Harris-Perry, associate professor of Politics and African-American Studies at Princeton University (and no relation of mine) has said:
The idea that we can somehow make any of these cultural products clean and nice is foolish. The whole point of culture and of literature is to challenge us.
American children today are, in many cases, exposed to the “n-word” through music and other elements of popular culture. Far better, Harris-Perry correctly argues, that they should confront the word in a challenging historical context with the aid of a skilled teacher, than to be left along to wrestle with the meaning of the word with their peers. However, I don’t believe we should minimize the pain for some children, or their parents, of the use of this word in the classroom, or merely wave it away by suggesting that “challenging” discussions should be the bread-and-butter of our nation’s classrooms. I don’t believe this is merely about a few overly-sensitive liberals, but rather about the intense pain still felt by many Americans at the use of the “n-word” in any context whatsoever; I believe we need to honor and confront that pain, and its sources, and not merely address the “n-word” in isolation.