New Huck Finn Edition Eliminates “That Word”

A new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn edits out the N-word, which I hereby, in protest, refuse to type because it skeeves me to think that I’ll catch Twell like Roger Ebert. (Also, women enjoy sex. I’m just saying.)

I do appreciate the anger most African Americans feel upon hearing the word uttered (or Tweeted) by a white man. And after all, Twain was white. But, just speaking for myself, I read the book at a young age. It was a significant part of getting me to understand at least in part how fucked up things were for African Americans in the South. It armed me against all the contemporary white protestations that too much is made of racism. Huckleberry Finn gave me a context for history.

Keith Staciewicz of Entertainment Weekly is non-committal on the subject, stating:

…if this puts the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it due to forces beyond their control (overprotective parents and the school boards they frighten), then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. It’s unfortunate, but is it really any more catastrophic than a TBS-friendly re-edit of The Godfather, you down-and-dirty melon farmer?

Leave it to that bastion of non-committal culture, Entertainment Weekly to equate the alteration of historical texts for political correctness with the TV edit of The Godfather, which to my mind is possibly the most insultingly ludicrous comparison I’ve ever heard. For the record, I think they’re both jack-assed gestures, but they’re not the same thing.

It misses the point to argue that removing something like “fucking motherfucker” from the TV broadcast of a film and removing the N-word from Huckleberry Finn are even remotely in the same context. Were “fucking motherfuckers,” as some characters in some films choose to call some other characters for generally story-driven reasons, systematically discriminated against, kidnapped, sold, denied opportunity, denied jobs, silenced, lynched? Do I need to go on, here?

I could see the argument for using a limited version of the word, to facilitate discussion while removing the unsettling charge that read the word generates in many U.S. readers of all races. In particular, I am sympathetic to the idea that in predominantly white schools, it may make nonwhite students feel singled out.

I wouldn’t really approve of it, but I can see a reasonable argument being made.

But using “n—–” and using “slave” are not equivalent. The former is distasteful to me because it attempts to make polite something that is manifestly impolite. The latter pretends that it was all very polite to begin with.

Doing so obliterates a student’s potential understanding of hundreds of years of race inequality. It ignores colonialism; it ignores the slave trade; it ignores the context of the slave trade. Furthermore, to remove that word ignores the context in which African Americans exist in the U.S. To remove it to avoid making school readers uncomfortable is to abdicate all of education’s responsibility to portray the world as it is — in all its bitter glory.

More importantly, is this intended to make African Americans as a group more comfortable? Or is it meant to make white people feel better? Because, you know, certain groups of white people in the U.S. have a history of not wanting to talk about race, and about racial inequality, and particularly of not wanting to acknowledge racism.

Meanwhile, other (and sometimes the same) groups of white people love to dictate what can be said about racism, which has the function not just of suppressing racist speech but of silencing minority voices.

As I said, I’m sympathetic to the potential discomfort of African American students on having to read and hear that word repeatedly by way of studying Huckleberry Finn. But just because racism is uncomfortable to discuss doesn’t mean it should be avoided.

How does erasing the history of this dangerous word help the cause of political correctness? How does it do anything except nullify the rage that all people of conscience (and, not to put too fine a point on it, African Americans in particular) are perfectly entitled to feel over the history of racism in the U.S.?

By removing the context for that rage, it makes any contemporary objection to historical racism seem small and petty. It makes those concerned with racism seem uppity and whiny. It serves the agenda of the far right that would like to sweep historical racism and inequality under the rug, so they don’t have to hear liberals and minorities “whine” anymore.

Just to trot out a Joe the Plumber or two, what happens when a white kid from some shit suburb who thinks Huckleberry Finn used the word “slave” instead of the n-word toodles off to college (or the East Village, man) and meets people who, just for instance, assert, “There is a significant history of racism in this country?”

I’ll tell you what happens, potentially. The white kid says, “WTF? You don’t know what you’re talking about. Sure, there was slavery, but at least they didn’t call the slaves dirty names or anything.”

Would it be more or less tragic if that was a kid of African-American descent saying that? Do you think it would affect that kid’s feeling about, say, affirmative action, or the physical danger that might be encountered if racist groups or gangs were to organize and commit racial violence, as they have historically and still do today?

Furthermore, the use of the word today in the black community forms a significant part of racial self-identity. Whether you’re black or white, or any of the other billions of people who aren’t either one, you can like it or hate it. But people use it, and the context in which they use it is important. If Mark Twain never used it, that context is damaged and the power of the word, for good or ill, is diminished.

Mark Twain put the word in there for a reason; it was common parlance in those days, and remains so today in a completely different context.

Twain was a white guy, yes, and you might think he didn’t have the right to “toss it around” any more than Roger Ebert did. But he did toss it around.

And Roger Ebert, thankfully, is still with us. Twain left us a portrayal of a time that none of us can ever know firsthand.

If we start fucking around with the historical record, we risk building a vision of that time that’s inaccurate.

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