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The N-Word Becomes “Sivilized” In Huckleberry Finn

Submitted by on January 30, 2011 – 11:52 am3 Comments
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Recent controversy erupted over a change in a new edition of the literary classic, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnNewSouth publishing company claims that in an attempt to the get the American classic in more classrooms and on more reading lists it will remove the word “n*gger” and replace it with “slave.”

The N-word, which appears more than 200 times in the novel, is used throughout the book by the story’s main character to address Jim, the runaway slave accompanying Huck Finn up the Mississippi River. Although the book is often criticized for playing up racial stereotypes with Jim’s minstrel-like character, it is a very unfeigned look at racism, slavery, and inequality in 19th-century America. In fact, the juxtaposition of the novel’s most benevolent character being derided as a “n*gger” highlights the sheer ignorance and absurdity of racial epithets and classifications.

The editor, lan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University, at Montgomery, Alabama, has expressed concerns the book is being excluded in curriculum because of the offensive word and wishes to spare “the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.”

Mr. Gribben’s reasoning and intentions seem laudable. Regardless of race, one cannot help but appreciate the onslaught of conflicting emotions any reader would encounter when coming across a word with so much painful history used with such callousness and frequency. But this is why true education is a combination of information intake and processing that information. Our nation’s educators must be up to the task of tackling the most controversial subject matters.

A piece of Americana that Ernest Hemingway once called the father of “all modern American literature” should be read by every single student in America. Censorship or ducking classroom discussions on race, especially the history of slavery and racism in the antebellum South, is an attempt to rewrite the American story.

Facing an ugly reality can be what makes great works of art, great works of art. More often than not, censorship only serves to diminish the power of the presentation. It creates timid thinkers, coddled young minds; eyes closed trying to avoid the elephant in the room. Ask yourself: Would Glory have been as powerful if we did not see Denzel Washington racked and whipped by his commanding officer, tears running down his cheek, strength clenched between his brows?  Would Schindler’s List have been as transformative if Steven Spielberg had opted to leave the gas chambers out of Auschwitz?

There is a false focus and a false choice at play here. What Mr. Gribben and those at NewSouth fail to understand, is that the emphasis should not be on questioning the content of what has already been litigated to stand as essential literature, but on questioning a society and academic structure unable to confront the reality of the very past it is entrusted to teach.

And that’s what the second part of this debate is about: an attempt by some to retell the less-than-admirable parts of our nation’s history.  We see this with Governor Haley Barbour (R-MI) in his recent attempt to glorify the White Citizen’s Council or Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies. From renaming the Civil War to the War of Northern Aggression in Southern textbooks to defending the flying of Confederate Flags outside of government buildings, there has always been this need to strain our history, leaving only the sugary sweet parts. But defending these realities under false pretenses and gross inaccuracies is not only disrespectful to the memory of those who have lived, but robs truth from those who have yet to know the world.

Reading great literature is challenging, confrontational and sometimes forces us to say, think and recognize the most sinister and reprehensible things about us as individuals and as a collective. In the final analysis, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not only an amazing piece of work centered around where we have been as a nation, but rather, where we have come from. While the former should make us cringe, the latter should make us smile.

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