Last week we learned that an Alabama publisher announced that it was going to release a new edition of Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which “the N-word” will be replaced by the word “slave.” Twain uses the N-word, we are told, 219 times (which according to Stephen Colbert, qualifies him as a rapper).
I personally loathe the N-word and realize that its use is offensive to many African-American young people and children. But really – do we need to clean up an American classic to keep from offending? If we start here, why don’t we also move on to re-writing other classics to remove language that is offensive to other racial groups, ethnic groups, religious groups and women? How about violence and sex? We’d have enough work on our hands simply going through Mark Twain’s writings (except for sex – I don’t recall much of that in his writings).
And isn’t the word “slave” itself offensive? Would Huck’s friend Jim feel better being called “slave Jim” rather than “N…. Jim”?
What is truly saddening is that Mark Twain stood out in a nation and century that accepted racism as a normal fact of everyday life. This book – a tale of the friendship between a runaway slave and a runaway white boy – is not racist; if anything, it is anti-racist.
I first heard the book read by my fourth or fifth grade teacher. Interestingly, the number of years since I first heard about it is about equal to the number of years from its publication in 1885 till I first heard it. In my day, in an all-white school, the N-word didn’t seem as uncomfortable as Huck’s relationship with his “Paw.” The story, however, was one of my first exposures to the concept of equality of the races.
Perhaps the action of this publisher is symptomatic of our refusal in America to honestly view our past. It is only one of many efforts to clean up our history and literature, to make them compatible with our American mythology and not with the truth, to get rid of the skeletons in our closets and to refuse to admit that we are a nation of sinners and members of a race of sinners.
Perhaps it is also symptomatic of our failure to see adult literature as what is and of our viewing of much of our literature as simply cute kids’ stories. This is nothing new. It happened in my childhood days as it does today. I read Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Dickens’, and many of Twain’s works as a child or young teenager without always comprehending their deep thought and truth, which was often hidden beneath a veil of satire. I guess I sort of blame my teachers for not helping me to read beneath the surface. And I fault today’s teachers for not finding the teachable moments in the reading of Huck Finn.
And I believe that the same is going on not only with literature, but with history and even the Bible. The great stories of literature and history are Disneyfied to make them cute and compatible. Those in the Bible as well, are cleaned up and made cute; this has been going on long before Veggie Tales (I remember the flannelgraph stories – Uni).
What is ironic is that today’s kids are exposed to sex, violence, sexism and racism – even the N-word, in all aspects of our cultural media: music, TV, movies and games. An exposure to good literature, honest history and accurate Bible teaching would seem to be what’s needed for them to get it all in perspective.