A Really Bad Idea

Prayers for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims in Tucson.

This post was supposed to go up last week when the mental firestorm hit.

I hate the “n-word.” I won’t use it unless I’m quoting someone else. I hate the idea that rappers use it, along with the b-word – unless the latter refers to a female dog. We can all survive and thrive without these epithets.

But even more I hate the idea of editing Mark Twain’s use of the word out of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and substituting the word “slave.” First, I find any form of censorship abhorrent. To limit speech or writing is to limit thinking. The free flow of ideas, and words, is the only way to keep our society open. As someone pointed out on NPR, what’s next: editing out words we don’t like from history?

Second, Mark Twain was writing about a particular period in history and making a comment on the type of people, including Huck, who would refer to black people that way. Huck did not intend the term as hate speech as seems to be implied by the objections to Twain’s use of the word.

Third, the word slave is not synonymous with the “n-word.” Jim was a slave, but a great many other blacks of that period were not. The proposed revisions will leave the erroneous impression that all black people of that era were property. There were even free people of color living in Missouri in 1840.

Mark Twain said it best: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter.” It is “the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” And here we are nearly a century and a half after Huck and Jim set forth substituting a jar full of nearly dead bugs for the lightning.

I find it ironic that people reporting on this story are perfectly willing to write “half-breed” and “Injun,” but few (including me) have actually used the “n-word” as part of the debate. Future readers of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer will know why twenty-first century editors were objecting on behalf of Native Americans. Readers will have to search, however, to figure out what was wrong with the way Huck referred to Jim.

After I started writing this entry I found a survey on npr.org. I am not alone in my sentiments. The stats were overwhelming: of 15,311 responses, only 645 people thought the changes were “OK.”

The justification offered by editor Alan Gribben was that more people, mainly children, will read the book, which is banned in some school districts. He cited the pain his daughter’s African American friend experienced when she had to read the book in school. It’s unfortunate that his solution to the problem is to try to sanitize the work.

Gribben and others should learn from my mother’s experience when she first encountered slavery in school and tried to avoid it by staying home for three days.

She wrote in the draft of a speech, “On the fourth day I went back to school feeling rested and victorious,” but the teacher, Harold White, asked her to stay after class. He told her that he had noticed that she seemed to duck and frown whenever the issue of slavery arose. He desensitized her by making her talk about the subject and ultimately convinced her that “slavery was not my shame.”

Mr. White shared with her books written by black people, and she learned about Frederick Douglass and William Still, who became secretary and then chairman of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Still recorded interviews with the slaves he helped to escape and eventually published them in The Underground Railroad.

Without the humiliation and its aftermath Mother would not have created Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (1955) and Tituba of Salem Village (1964). “If there is an underlying idea behind the books that I wrote about slaves its origin lies back all those years ago when I was in high school. … Both of these books present slaves as people of courage, integrity, determination, committed to the idea of freedom – human beings.” From At Home Inside: A Daughter’s Tribute to Ann Petry

It’s too late to stop the editing of Huckleberry Finn, but I implore editors in the future to leave writers’ words alone. Please. If it means the children will have to wait to read the book, so be it.


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