Southern Publisher To Remove N-Word from Huckleberry Finn: Who Benefits?

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Earlier this month, Publishers Weekly announced that the next print edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will be without the words "nigger" and "Injun" (“slave” will replace the "N-word"). From the PW website:

Unsurprisingly, there are already those who are yelling “Censorship!” as well as others with thesauruses yelling “Bowdlerization!” and “Comstockery!” Their position is understandable: Twain’s book has been one of the most often misunderstood novels of all time, continuously being accused of perpetuating the prejudiced attitudes it is criticizing, and it’s a little disheartening to see a cave-in to those who would ban a book simply because it requires context. (Emphasis mine).

Huck Finn book

So, is this good news or bad news? Emotionally -- for me, anyway -- this is good news. But it's also very bad news, in the sense that a great opportunity to make a dent in eradicating racism has been lost.

The blogosphere has been atwitter over this news, and, surprisingly, a number of Black bloggers have also said that while on paper the nasty word will be erased, its meaning and its legacy will never be erased from our minds.

I was in fourth or fifth grade when we read Huckleberry Finn in class. As I was the only Black person in the class (and there were only three Black kids in the entire school), that experience was already bad enough -- without having to hear the word "nigger" repeatedly said by my teacher, who read the book aloud.

I was confused: Wasn’t that a bad word, a word that was repeatedly said to me by schoolyard bullies and the occasional person who yelled it at me and my older sister from the confines of a passing car? I do not remember the beauty of the story, the lessons that we could learn from the book. I only remember my hurt when the teacher said that word, looking at me as she said it. I can only remember my fellow classmates snickering as she did.

The adult me never wants another Black child to ever feel the pain I felt when reading that book.

In preparation for this post, I read the introduction to the 1996 Oxford edition of Huckleberry Finn by Toni Morrison, and she was able to articulate the powerful nuances in the book -- nuances that as a kid, I certainty didn’t pick up on:

In the early Eighties I read Huckleberry Finn again, provoked, I believe, by demands to remove the novel from the libraries and required reading lists of public schools. …..Embarrassing as it had been to hear the dread word spoken, and therefore sanctioned, in class, my experience of Jim’s epithet had little to do with my initial nervousness the book had caused. Reading "nigger" hundreds of times embarrassed, bored, annoyed -- but did not faze me. ….Although its language -- sardonic, photographic, persuasively aural -- and the structural use of the river as control and chaos seem to me quite the major feats of Huckleberry Finn, much of the novel’s genius lies in its quiescence, the silences that pervade it and give it a porous quality that is by turns brooding and soothing.

Reading Morrison’s introduction made me want to pick up the book again after about 30 years. It stresses Huckleberry Finn's importance, not only in the world of great literature, but perhaps in how we can look to the past in order to understand our present. As with Morrison, after repeated use, the word "nigger" has lost its power over me; I no longer feel small and unequal when someone directs it toward me. It is the accompanying actions, designed to make me feel small and unequal, that are more problematic.

Many rational people -- including those who wanted the book pulled from schools' shelves -- know that in the good old days, things were much different. In the time when the book took place, African American slaves were not seen as having the same human qualities as whites. “Nigger” was, in some strange way, not even seen as a derogatory word -- it rolled just as easily off the tongue of Jim as it did of Huck. Unfortunately, it was a way of life -- besides, Black slaves had more pressing concerns than being called the “N-word," like slavery, rape, beatings, lynchings and other disturbing ways of being murdered. Not to mention not having any dignity nor humanity. By removing "nigger," we're removing one way Twain denotes how the characters viewed each other -- it was important that Huck first observed Jim as not human, as someone who did not have the same intellectual capabilities as Huck did. But over time, that changed. "Nigger" tells the reader of the differences between those characters.

In my opinion, the significance of this decision means that people will never really have to discuss the real disparities that exist between names and actions. Teachers are off the hook -- especially those who, when reading the book to their students, could dismiss "nigger" as a "bad word" without contextualizing the belief system behind it. This is an insidious legacy of political correctness -- we want certain racial slurs to be eliminated to promote "tolerance" and civility, yet we do not really want to take the extra step and strive for equality.

As fellow Blogher Contributing Editor Nordette writes on her blog, perhaps non-Black people will stop using the “well, Black people use the "N-word," so why can’t I?” excuse to cover their latent racism:

Furthermore, I do think when people misuse the word in the name of their own insecurities or as a racial slur against people of color (See John Mayer, some black rappers, and some whites and soldiers who indulge calling Arabs "sand niggers"), they should be taken to task. I expect them to know better and think they are bright enough to know they should not speak to people or of people in a certain way, the same way a man knows if he wants the female bank loan officer to look favorably at his loan application, he can't roll up to her desk saying "bitch." What we all know is that if you don't use a word when you need a favor, then you probably shouldn't use it when you don't.

Over at Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog at The Atlantic, he points out that this decision is disrespectful to writers who face censorship of their art:

This is actually much worse, because the invocation of nigger by Twain is not a moral failing. But because of our needs, Twain isn't good enough. Because we can't handle the story of who we were, and evidently who we are, Twain must be summoned up from the dead and, all against himself, submitted before the edits of amateurs. This is our system of fast-food education laid bare: Children are roaming the halls singing "Sexy Bitch," while their neo-Confederate parents are plotting to chop the penis off Michelangelo's David, and clamoring for Gatsby and Daisy to be reunited.

I’m expecting a number of people to say, “see now, Black people have gotten what they want. Stop complaining about racism!” But as Nordette’s post mentions, who does this really benefit?

In addition, I think this move of a white publisher in Alabama of all places wanting to strip the word "nigger" from Huckleberry Finn seems like too disingenuous an act to be approved on face value. It reminds me of those Texans rewriting history and social studies textbooks, or Mississippi's Gov. Haley Barbour's attempt to redefine the racist Citizens Councils of his youth, and Virginia textbooks teaching that thousands of black people fought for the Confederacy because a writer was so desperate to fulfill that state's requirement to teach about the rebels in a more favorable light that she goofed. It's all an attempt to scrub history and lift up the South again to smell like roses. The motive is to distort reality and make us forget the evil things done.

As a nine-year-old kid, I never thought I’d be writing about this. Here are some related links:

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com

Writer: Hellbound: www.hellbound.ca

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