Monday, January 10, 2011


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.


Sherry said...

when I heard this, my first thought was that they missed the entire point of the story! they say they're doing it so schools will start teaching it again but I'm with you - maybe they shouldn't teach it if they're not teaching it "right"

John K said...

Interesting topic. I don't think anyone wants to burn the original version, and I for one don't have any problem with offering a version which those who dislike the word can read with their children. In several cases, I have loved movies edited for television and later been appalled by the uncut version. There should be room for both.

However, more to the core, I don't think people under 50 or those who have never lived in the deep south really understand the deep pain this word can evoke. I moved from Indiana to Arkansas for college in 1963, and had my eyes opened. On a christian college campus, nig... jokes were common. They found things like the rape of black women and the lynching of black men to be "humorous" topics for nig... jokes. After the assasination of Dr. King, some celebrated the death of that nig... and laughed about it. Some even felt that Kennedy had deserved to die that fall because he was a "nig... lover". Several blacks were lynched in a nearby town based on a false rumor. A sweet christian girl on campus told me it wasn't really a crime, but just an "understandable mistake". She couldn't understand why I was so upset. After all, she said "they were just nig...s".

I still cringe at the word because it reminds me of a dark time when too many christians harrassed, harmed and even murdered people (or turned their back to these events) and laughed about it, because the victims were just nig...s.


Bill Ball said...

John, you and I have had similar experiences and share similar feelings. However I don't believe we can really deal with the past by ignoring it as our members of the house of representatives did when they so piously read the constitution aloud. They deliberately omitted the part of article 1, section 2, that declares a slave 3/5 of a man.

EdTechSandyK said...

Santayana wrote "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

While I appreciate the difficulty of admitting to times in our history when we enslaved African-Americans, counted them as 3/5 of a person for policital gain, and freely used the "n" word to dehumanize them and keep them "in their place", we cannot hope to do better in the present and the future if we ignore - or even worse sanitize - the realities of our history.

Anonymous said...

Hello Bill

I came across your blog through clicking "next blog" and found your post interesting. I read Huck to my two boys when there were about 11 and 13. I debated about whether to read aloud the word "nigger" and found that I just couldn't do it. It somehow seemed like reading the word "shit" to my kids. It just wouldn't come out.

I told my kids that I would be reading "nigger" as "negro" and told them why and what each word meant. I guess I was also afraid that after reading the word each night it might somehow slip out the next day. I asked my friends about this and they were about evenly split on reading the word aloud to my kids.

What would you have done? Just wondering.

Dave Duffy
Kingsburg, CA

Bill Ball said...

11Dave: I think you did exactly the right thing. You used the word as an opportunity to teach your sons about the way things are and about the way things should be.
I would like to think that I would have done as you did. We need to expose our kids to what's wrong in this world, but we don't have to rub their faces in it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,
I think you make a very interesting point. Taking this word, that was very intentionally utilized, out of he novel is like candy coating the reality of what happened in our history. It's a lie. We can't very well take the concept of race out of the teachings of slavery and this was a distinction used. It is completely wretched, but it was used. We still learn about lynchings and name calling. If those concepts are deemed appropriate to teach, why not this one word. It is a truly disgusting reality that there was so much hatred, but the fact of the matter is that it happened and hiding it doesn't negate it. I think that if anything, downplaying the suffering of the brave men and women who endured this treatment is a disrespect to them. Kids today call each other all kinds of dehumanizing things and maybe if we would teach them Huck Fin, the REAL version of it, then they would learn to see people as people and not as some offensive label.

Bill Ball said...