Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The N-word

A new bowdlerized edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from a publisher named, significantly, NewSouth, was announced this month. In it the word nigger, which appears 219 times, is replaced by slave. Now, they say, English teachers will be able to read it aloud in class without embarrassment.

Some of the arguments in defense of the change, advanced by editor and Mark Twain scholar Allen Gribben of Auburn University, are persuasive: "I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel...but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable."

Others are not persuasive at all: “Let’s get one thing straight, Mark Twain was a notoriously commercial and populist author. If he was alive today and all he had to do was change one word to get his book into every schoolhouse in America, he couldn’t change it fast enough.” So NewSouth's admittedly commercial motive is justified because Twain was not all that artistically committed to his work? Hmm.

The problem is that when nigger becomes slave, more than just a word is changed. Slavery itself is sanitized, becoming nothing more than a political condition justified over the ages by such eminences as the Old Testament patriarchs and Aristotle. It removes from the Old South's "peculiar institution" slavery's racist underpinnings.

Huck was brought up to believe that black people are an inferior sub-species. Twain's novel achieves greatness in Huck's revelation that his upbringing was wrong. When he sees Jim's eyes well up with tears while telling about how he discovered his little girl was deaf, Huck is confronted with Jim's humanity. Huck sees him not as a nigger but as a man. And therefore he apprehends, even if he can't yet articulate it, that slavery is founded on racism, and racism is founded on a lie.

When students feel uncomfortable with the n-word, the challenge is to teach them as to why it has to be there. Teaching--now there's a novel idea.

Huck and Jim in a detail from the mural A Social History of Missouri in the Missouri House of Representatives, painted by Thomas Hart Benton, 1935. Benton had his own problems with sanitizers when he included scenes of slavery in this work and Ku Klux Klansmen in a major work in Indiana. Click on the picture for a closer look, and notice the name of the riverboat.


Paula Slade said...

I totally agree with your comment about "teaching." One cannot change history, but become enlightened because of the facts.

Anonymous said...

This is all about limiting Free Speech. After all, censorship is everywhere. The gov’t (and their big business cronies) censor free speech, shut down dissent and ban the book “America Deceived II”. Free speech for all, especially Mark Twain.
Last link (before Google Books bans it also]:

DUTA said...

Changing a word or an expression is just a matter of politically correctness like so many other stupid things in the western society.

As for slavery and racism.
Slavery is first of all based on Greed, not on racism. There's slavery (with all its inhumanity)still going on within The Same Race, the black race in Africa.

"..and racism is founded on a lie", you say.
Well, there are races, and they differ by color, and by the workings of the mind which generate what is called mentality -that's a fact. It is mentality that makes it so difficult for various races to live together, and when the money to buy quiet will end,the togetherness will be completely impossible.

Unfortunately, education (even Harward education) does not, cannot , and will not change mentality - that's a fact too. Mentality change is something that belongs solely to the realm of God (Superpower, Nature).

I must admit I have difficulty with the terms 'superiority' and 'inferiority' , and that's because of the germans who claim to be the superior race .

Well, my personal conclusion is that the germans are indeed superior, but it works both ways: they are the best in good things (science, arts, economy, music) - but they are also the 'best' in bad,evil things (no one but the germans could have invented and carried out with such precision mass extermination by gas chambers and building of concentration camps and ghettos).

So far about superiority. Inferiority is also not easy to define.That's why I think we should focus on the terms 'humanity' and 'inhumanity' only.

Sorry about the lengthy comment.

TallTchr said...

@Paula: I appreciate your sentiment.

@Anonymous: The title you mentioned is readily available from a variety of sources, including Amazon, and in several formats. The rumor that it had been banned appears to have been started by the author to stimulate sales of a critically panned and much ridiculed work. The era of banning publications has passed, as evidenced by the Wikileaks episode.

@Duta: Your point about greed is well taken. I should have made clear that I referred to the ethical rationale for slavery. Aristotle fumbled with an idea that somehow slaves had lesser souls than free men. The Bible, per rabbinic comment, draws a contrast between the way the patriarchs treated their slaves vs. the Hebrew's taskmasters in Egypt.

TallTchr said...

Oh, and lest there be any confusion, let me add that ethical rationales are nearly always just hypocritical excuses.