Let me get this out of the way right at the start.
1. I am not a fan of Mark Twain. I think his writing is lazy and I think his stories are dull. I think that if you want to read American fiction by a white fellow about a journey and the South you should read The Wild Palms by Faulkner.
◊ Or anything by Faulkner.
◊ I LOOOOVE Faulkner.
2. I am not a fan of the word nigger. I am using it in this post because I think that it is important in the context of the discussion but I don’t use it in polite company. I don’t use it in impolite company. I was brought up with a strict “Hit first ask questions later” policy with regard to the word ever being used to describe me. I do not understand the desire to “reclaim” the word and I cringe when I hear people (of any race) using the “softer” version among themselves – particularly as a term of endearment.
So, you might think that I’d be relieved by the news that, because of the work of Alan Gribben, a version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is now being released by NewSouth Books replacing the word with “slave.”
The idea of a more politically correct Finn came to the 69-year-old English professor over years of teaching and outreach, during which he habitually replaced the word with “slave” when reading aloud. Gribben grew up without ever hearing the “n” word (“My mother said it’s only useful to identify [those who use it as] the wrong kind of people”) and became increasingly aware of its jarring effect as he moved South and started a family. “My daughter went to a magnet school and one of her best friends was an African-American girl. She loathed the book, could barely read it.”
My first response to this was an Imperial facepalm.
My second response to this was, well eat an apple and convince me to paint your fence you lazy bastard!
Thankfully I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Indeed, Twain scholar Thomas Wortham, at UCLA, compared Gribben to Thomas Bowdler (who published expurgated versions of Shakespeare for family reading), telling PW that “a book like Professor Gribben has imagined doesn’t challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?’”
But soon even that academically-supported righteousness wore off and I was left with the hard cold frightened nub of why this move bothers me so.
It important that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (and, indeed any piece of literature) not be neutered for the sake of ease because – especially – in this time of political revisionism art is one of the few things that we have to keep us honest. It is important to keep a record of who are and who we were.
Replacing nigger with slave not only dilutes the text, it dilutes our history. And that scares me.
Sure, people who were enslaved were referred to as slaves. But they were referred to as property, chattel, livestock and (specifically for those who were black and enslaved) nigger(s). The use of the word is about power and privilege and was applied to all black people regardless of condition.
Because let’s be clear. Slavery is a condition. Nigger is a description, a qualifier. This is an important distinction to me. Black people all over our country didn’t hear slave as the last word that was said to them before they were lynched or humiliated and dehumanized in other forms. They heard nigger.
Slavery is something that we abolished. Something that we “overcame.” Nigger is not.
In the novel Jim turns out to be a free man. He won’t be called a slave anymore, but I bet he’ll still be called a nigger.
I accept that it’s difficult for people – especially children – to read novels filled with such an ugly word¹. I dread having to explain the word to my future child. But I am committed to doing it because I am committed to honesty.
It is too easy to remove the words and ideas that offend us from art and history. It is too easy to give in to cowardice and hide our heads and dull our intellects in the sands of political correctness.
It is difficult to accept that our nation with all of its faults and warts and ugliness, its stops and starts and shudders, is the nation the we love; the nation we make every.single.day. It is emotionally wrenching and intellectually challenging to acknowledge that ours is a nation that is as much a reflection of its past as it is its hope for the future.
Nigger is a part of who we are. And that is awful. That is horrific. That hurts me. But that is the truth.
We must preserve Huckleberry Finn (and other works) as they are to remind us of the work that we have done and to inspire us to do the work that we still have to do. Especially in these tea-partying days. We must do so because we are America, land of the brave.
¹I accept that it may have been difficult for some of you to read this post which filled with such an ugly word. It was hard for me to write.