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.

4 Responses to “Censorship, the ‘n-word,’ and Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’”

  1. rox says:

    I hadn't thought about the option of possibly striking the word. I have real problems with substitutioning the word slave for the reasons you noted above. I think striking the word is a nice compromise. I don't like the idea of the change at all, but I understand why schools don't want to use the book because of the word. While I think it's important to teach the book as is because I think it's a powerful commentary on a very ugly part of our past, I admit it's a subject that no matter someone's best intention in teaching it could possibly go very wrong. I am happy to see people discussing the issue – gives me hope for both our love of literature and our hope for better race relations.

    Have I ever told you about the woman who served as a nanny? She was a black woman named Minnie. She was the single most amazing person I've ever known. She was born around 1910 and grew up in a world so different from any I've ever known. If we all ever together for dinner I'll tell you all about her.

    Have you ever read the book "Having Our Say"?

  2. Georgia Brown says:

    Taking “the n-word” out of Huck Finn not only affects the entire tone, meaning, and effectiveness of the work (We all know Twain was not a racist, he was very intentional with his use of satire) but it also has significant implications for future generations. Things that we may never consider are shaping our current and next generations’ race relations. When future historians look back at the upcoming generation of school children that will read this deformed text of Mark Twain, what events will have transpired, what perceptions formed both of different races as well as eras past- will be influenced by this textual change?

    To frame the question in another light, would we ever consider removing accounts of the Holocaust from social studies course out of respect for the pain which the re-telling of events may cause its victims and their families? Would we remove the word “jew” because it once had a very painful and evil connotation? I think not, because the very intent of history is the search for “why.” Human beings seek “why’s” in order to both understand the present moment and also make informed decisions in the future. Historical accounts are sought out in order that we may learn from them. Moreover, I firmly believe that respecting a person’s pain necessarily means keeping the account of their experience alive. The way to respect a person’s life- the way to acknowledge their struggle, the severity of their pain, or even the unlikeliness of their triumph- is to tell people about it. If the experience is scraped under the rug, or shown in a half-light, a significant part of reality is hidden. I am very well aware that I will never understand what emotional baggage the term “nigger,” entails for many. But I believe that the way for our society to demonstrate respect for the pain is not by ignoring it. The way to respect it is to try and ensure that nothing like it ever happens again- and that is only possible by acknowledging it directly, squarely and conveying its reality in totality with its uncomfortable implication so that the next person has a full understanding of its significance. Removing “nigger” from school children’s lessons only ensures that the nearly universal misunderstanding and misuse of the word will continue. Children may be exposed to the “n-word” within the sanitary environment of history and social studies lessons, but then it will simply be another item to be noted a study guide. Without context there is no emotional charge to demonstrate its true significance. When children’s contextual experience of the “n-word” comes in the form of popular culture, they are deprived of the opportunity to know and understand its true significance. When a young white male is coming into puberty and expressing interest in the rap music genre, his experience of the word will be casual and non-emotional. He will fail to grasp that it is in fact a product of evil and serious tragedy, not something to be taken lightly or assumed to be acceptable to the black community. One of the most important qualities of Huck Finn is that it gives children access to the experience of that era, a window- so to speak- to the discomfort of it. The literary context provides a shock value that history lessons and social studies classes simply cannot. As Marc Bloch wrote in The Historian’s Craft, “the knowledge of fragments, studied by turns, each for its own sake, will never produce the knowledge of the whole; it will not even produce that of the fragments themselves.” If you are going to strike the word, it would be better not to teach the book at all. Not only do you disfigure the work immensely, but it loses most of its genuine value.

    I am very confident in my assessment of this because of my experiences attending a high school in Augusta, GA where young white students would frequently do things like walk up to a group of African American students and repeat a line they heard in a rap song, “Whhattts up my niggaaaaa???” with a big goofy grin, looking for a high five. While these students may be considered dumb, I can assure you that they were not acting with malice or even inappropriate sarcasm. They were simply that sheltered and ignorant. (yes, it happens.) You cannot rely on a student’s curiosity to seek historical truth, it must be presented clearly and unavoidably. In many cases, this book is the only exposure students have to the harsh reality of southern history. This is why I think the original form of the text is invaluable to American education.

  3. Inheriting the Trade | Excising the “n” word from Huckleberry Finn says:

    […] UPDATE: for another thoughtful perspective on this subject, I encourage you to read my cousin James DeWolf Perry’s post, Censorship, the ‘n-word,’ and Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’ […]

  4. Excising the “n” word from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn — The Moments Count Journal says:

    […] another thoughtful perspective on this subject, I encourage you to read my cousin James DeWolf Perry’s post, Censorship, the ‘n-word,’ and Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn’… Please share this […]

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