Friday, January 7, 2011

What the Huck?

Racism Star Trek Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit, it's back-to-back entries from me! I haven't done that for a while, but the issue is censorship, and I'm on that like mud on a pig. Also racism, and I'm on that like white on rice. (See what I did there?) I'm mixing metaphors, but that's not important now.

You've probably heard about a publisher's decision to censor Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In short, the word 'nigger' will be replaced with 'slave,' and the word 'Injun' will be replaced with 'Indian.' I actually revised myself there...I originally wrote 'edit' rather than 'censor,' and I think my revision is appropriate. This isn't a matter of editing something for offensive content; this is censoring a classic American novel because of a word that is now highly offensive.

I read an interesting piece on Politics Daily by Delia Lloyd concerning the Huck Finn controversy, and it served to gel my own thoughts concerning this. I already had an opinion, and it seems that most of my literary-minded friends share it: this is unwarranted and unwelcome censorship of a novel written only a couple of decades after slavery ended in our country. This is not just a classic American novel. It is a historic American novel because of its context. I did understand several of Ms. Lloyd's points, and left a comment there, but I want to address some of those issues here.

She mentioned that she and her husband bought an edited version of an Eminem CD for their 10-year-old son because of language.

There is, to be sure, a big difference between contemporary rap music and a classic of American literature. Or at least so my son thought when I posed this question to him. His view is that rap is an inherently angry genre and, as such, swearing is central to its aesthetic (word choice mine, idea entirely his). But he says that he can still enjoy a rap CD even when it's "sanitized"--it is, after all, still entertaining.

In contrast, he thinks that "Huckleberry Finn" is a book about social relationships. And so to remove the language in which those relationships are couched is both historically inaccurate and distorts the meaning of the text.

That is one smart kid, who seems to get what his parents don't. There is a big difference between a music CD and a classic American novel. If you take out the bad words in music, you're still left with some great music. (I'm never a fan of censoring music, but there is stuff that is probably age-inappropriate--that is up to the parents to control. Good luck with that. haha) If you censor Twain's writings, you are censoring and attempting to sanitize a piece of our history. A shameful history, but one that cannot and should not be forgotten. Lloyd wrote:

I remember a few years back, when one of the teachers at my daughter's school tried to get a group of 8-year-olds to understand racism by having all the white kids in the class yell all the racial slurs they could possibly come up with at all the children of color. Her objective was to get the students to see the idiocy and toxicity of racism. But the experiment backfired. The children were frightened, confused and horrified. And even here, in the less-than-PC U.K., the teacher nearly lost her job. It's not clear that you can do Twain--or racism--justice in the hour you get as a teacher to talk about this book.

Good grief, how is that acceptable? How is hurling epithets a teaching exercise in any way, shape, or form? And why was it the white kids throwing the epithets at the kids of color? If that was an experiment to teach the students about the idiocy of racism, I think it failed miserably and only highlighted the idiocy of the teacher. Why would this book be a matter of an hour of discussion? When we read books in my school, we spent at least a few weeks going through them and discussing them. Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, Of Mice and Men, Hamlet, Macbeth, and so many others. These were not works that could be discussed in an hour. Why is Huck Finn confined to an hour? It has many more implications and much more significance than warranting only an hour of discussion on it.

Last year, my colleague Mary C. Curtis wrote about talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger's use of the N-word, which she uttered so liberally during one particular on-air rant that the subsequent outcry prompted her to say she would retire. As Mary points out, "This is the word that people with ropes used as they lynched men and women for an afternoon's entertainment. This is the word craven politicians shouted to stoke racial fear. This word has been used as background music to terror."

Most certainly...but equating Twain's book, a contemporary account of the treatment of slaves and Huck's dangerous friendship with Jim, to Schlessinger's radio rant and inflammatory use of the word 'nigger' in order to boost her ratings is a ridiculous comparison.

In short, the N-word isn't just a piece of regional jargon that marks a particular moment in our nation's history. It's a hateful word. It's poisonous. And it's pervasive. Does all this mean that in the future, children should only consume the kindler, gentler Huck Finn 2.0 that Gribben [the person who is revising the novel] and Co. are peddling? I'm not sure. But this issue certainly isn't as black and white, so to speak, as some critics are making it out to be.

Racist eggs Yes, it IS a hateful word, and it's still in use today. I hear it once in a while, and it makes me cringe and it infuriates me. But strapping a paper strip on the book stating "Sanitized For Your Protection" is not solving anything. It is ignoring a very real, very significant, and very shameful period in our history. If we cannot rationally discuss this with our kids and with our students, we are only perpetuating the problem. Much like some of the Confederate groups trying to revise history and paint the Civil War as being about nothing more than states' rights, it is revisionist history. Huck Finn isn't just an ordinary novel. It is part of our history. It's the story of a young man finding friendship with someone that he isn't supposed to befriend because that is what society dictates.

If our students can't comprehend the full meaning of the book and its place in our history after a reasonable and rational discussion (one that lasts more than an hour), what does that say about us as an intelligent society?

Am I raising the bar too high?


  1. It's not just that it's our history. It's a terrific and moral novel from our best American writer, and one who knew damn well which side of history to be on. He makes that much clear all through the story. And if he didn't write it as he heard it, all its power would be lost. All you have to do to realize how outrageous this rewrite is is to take a random bit of dialog and sanitize it thus: "I couldn't believe it. Tom Sawyer a Stealer Of A Person Of Color!" Yeah, that rings true.

  2. You said it all very concisely and cogently.
    Sanitizing history.
    How can we learn from our mistakes if we, for lack of a better word though it fits nicely, "whitewash" them for future generations?

  3. What's next, the Holocaust gets turned into A trip to Disneyland, Anne Frank was playing hide and seek, and Hellen Keller was merely playing Marco Polo the whole time? Ridiculous to make history politically correct.

  4. Here's what my problem is. People keep getting upset with the publisher who was merely filling an identified need. What I have failed to see is a true discussion of why the publisher felt the need to publish this edition - the fact that many school districts have banned the book for many years and that there are teachers within these districts that would like to teach the book. Of course that then gets into the localized structure of the public education system in this country. Why has no one made that leap as of yet? That's where real change is going to happen.

    It's a hard call for me because I personally like the idea that it is giving access to the book to some for whom it has been denied. And I firmly believe that a good teacher in this situation can still address the issue of race even though the two terms have been removed from the book.

  5. I absolutely hate to see a classic novel cleansed in this way, as it does seem to be a form of censorship in and of itself. Let's give our teachers and students credit for being wise enough to interpret the original words as they were meant to be interpreted, and use those words and their implications as a lesson for what not to do in the future.

  6. I heard the editor on NPR, and did not think that he make his case (professor from Mississippi State). Twain wrote to intentionally provoke, and to remove that dilutes the message. Also, if you can sanitize this, then what is next?

  7. @Ken -- Perhaps all of the other books that have been banned for the same reason that this one has. Books like Uncle Tom's Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird, to name a couple.

    Here's my personal frustration. People keep saying that these books are a great tool to open up conversation about role that race plays in the United States. First of all, are these conversations happening? What I've been hearing over this past week is nothing but the theoretical. Secondly, why is it that whenever I hear this, the majority of the time it comes from a member of the dominant society? Perhaps because most people of color are aware on a daily basis of the role of race. And this is probably why there was minimal conversation about the usage of the word when I taught The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman at a school that had a student population that was 1% white.

  8. Shakes head in dismay, one of your commenters mentioned the Halocaust about 30 years agi it was discovered that German kids never knew the real horrors of WW2 meaning the concentration camps, imagine a generation of kids being berated and they were and not knowing the reason why, there's censorship and then there's stupidity.


  9. Beth, as you can imagine, I'm completely against banning books, hiding them behind closed doors, or altering them from the original content. Huck Fin is a classic American novel. It is also happens to be racist and has the "N" word.

    Unfortunately, it needs to stay as it is, so people don't ever forget where we have came from or the wrongs that have been perpetrated. We need context is our lives, now more than ever. To erase that ugly word, that ugly truth, would be to erase the trauma, the suffering, the struggle, and the eventual triumph of all those who have been and will be oppressed.

    This is the perfect opportunity for our nation to seize a moment to get students fired up and help them learn about our country's very checked past, but it looks like we'd rather hide in a corner with our hands in our ears pretending it didn't happen at all.

  10. It is inconceivable to me that "we" could or would ever dare to tinker with Mark Twain's words. That would be like reading the Constitution aloud and leaving out the parts about slavery. Oh wait. They did that too.

    What the hell is happening to this country?


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