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Huck Finn, Censorship and the N-Word Controversy

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LONDON -- My 10-year-old came home from school the other day with an assignment from his teacher: write an original story based on the concept of a "shipwreck."

He promptly sat down at the dinner table and began composing his opus. It was the story of a "tan-skinned" pirate of Somali origin who hijacks a boat with an AK-47. In broken English, the pirate threatens all the passengers on the ship with his weapon. Then they die.

When my son showed me his essay afterward, I was mortified. "You can't write this!" I exclaimed. "You sound like a racist!" I then forced him to expurgate the most offensive passages, including the color of the pirate's skin and the derogatory description of his accent.

Mark TwainBut when I recounted this story to an English friend of mine, she just shook her head. "Oh, you Americans!" she said, laughing. "You're so hung up on political correctness! An English teacher would neither notice nor care about any of this. Lighten up!"

I was reminded of this vignette earlier this week when I read that a new edition of Mark Twain's classic novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is coming out in February. In the new version, all instances of the N-word -- which appears more than 200 times in the original text -- have been expunged. In its place, the book employs the term "slave." ("Injun," a derogatory term for Native Americans, will be replaced by "Indian.")

The decision to create a new version of the text was made by Alan Gribben of Auburn University, who is editing the book for Alabama-based publisher New South. Gribben, a Twain scholar who has taught the book for decades, says that he himself struggled with uttering the N-word aloud in the classroom. And he's not alone. Despite being considered one of the greatest American novels, "Huckleberry Finn" is the fourth most banned book in U.S. schools. Gribben is thus trying to combat what he calls the "pre-emptive censorship" that many educators have employed toward Twain's works because of their racially charged content.

But news of the new edition has not been greeted warmly either inside or outside of the academy. It's been excoriated as nothing less than censorship in many literary quarters. One Twain scholar, UCLA's Thomas Wortham, compared Gribben to Thomas Bowdler, the British editor of the 19th century who created a notorious "family" version of Shakespeare, which removed all sexual themes so as not to offend Victorian wives and children. "How can we expect children to learn real history if we sanitize it for them?" queries Wired's Matt Blum.

Elon James White, writing in Salon, agrees. He argues that the only way to get Americans to deal openly and honestly with prejudice is to force students to be uncomfortable with terms that -- unpleasant though they may be -- are part and parcel of our country's blatantly racist past. "America is a society in which our ugly history is not so far gone as to allow for cold, detached analysis," he writes. "Because of the mistreatment of everyone who wasn't/isn't white, straight and male, America is constantly defending itself instead of dealing head-on with the wrongs that it willingly played a role in."

As a devotee of Mark Twain, I'm sympathetic to these objections. Take the N-word out of "Huckleberry Finn" and is it still "Huckleberry Finn"? Probably not. It is, after all, a story narrated in Huck's voice.

As a parent, however, I'm less sympathetic to Gribben's critics. Over the holidays, when we were back in the U.S., my husband and I bought the latest Eminem CD, "Recovery," for our son. But we deliberately selected the edited version, which takes out all of the swear words. We weren't so much concerned with our son hearing the curses (trust me, he's heard them) as we were with some of the derogatory words the rap artist uses to talk about women. Why expose a 10-year-old to misogyny?

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.

But there are more practical reasons to think that having a cleaned-up version of "Huckleberry Finn" isn't, as Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams' puts it, "the worst thing in the world." Williams echoes Gribben in pointing out just how hard it would be to appropriately contextualize the racism in the book for a group of children. "I have a tough time imagining my kids sharing the experience of reading the words 'Jim had an uncommon level head, for a nigger' with their fellow students in school, let alone saying them out loud in their classrooms," she writes. "I sure as hell wouldn't envy the teacher whose job it was to steer the discussion afterward."

Nor would I. 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.

It's also true that the N-word, as Gribben points out, has gotten more, not less, offensive over time. "The N-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups," he said. "As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact."

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."

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 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.

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Filed Under: Race Issues, Woman Up, Culture

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Personally I am a bit sick of the politically correct bull crap. If I had a shovel a mile wide I couldn't dig through all of it that being pc has caused.
Huckleberry Finn was a book that was supposed to be narrated by a young boy that grew up in the time when there were still slaves in the United States. It is a "first person" narrative. That means it is like the boy is talking to us, in words used in that time period and that part of the country by a boy his age.

As a mother of 5 very well rounded, nonracial children and a future English and History teacher, I find the thought of editting this classic appalling. I can think of at least a dozen ways I could explain this novel in its original form to school children in a logical way that made them understand what it was about and educate them about the way things were back then. Sanitizing history is not going to make it better. It happened and our children need to learn about it so that they will not let such things happen again.

Books such as this one, Tom Sawyer and many other period novels tell a story of how things were, how things in that time were perceived and how people acted and spoke. Mark Twain did a remarkable job in his writings, bringing the time period to life with lively narratives and believeable characters.

I do not like the "N" word nor do I overly agree with the term "Injun", but both were used in as part of our terminology during that time period. Both held derogatory meanings not only in that time period, but today as well. But in the book Huckleberry Finn, I believe it should stay, just as it is, simply because it was used in the way it was written in everyday life back during the time period the setting of teh book is supposed to be written.

I hope that if one day anybody during this time period writes a book similar to Huckleberry Finn about this day and age, that they will not later be edited later on because they used words that are derogatory or racial in what is supposed to be a first person narrative by someone in this time period. To me, that would give the future generations something to look on, learn from and move above.

January 20 2011 at 9:19 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

The crux of the author's argument aside, the example of her purchasing an Eminem CD for her 10-year son piqued my interest. It seems in her attempt to limit her son's exposure to misogyny, she's ignoring or misses the fact it that she is sending money - voting with her pocketbook - to someone who plies his "trade" celebrating misogyny, thus unwittingly helping him, albeit in a very small way, to continue to make his way in the world as this type of rapper.

January 08 2011 at 9:37 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Racism and the use of derogatory epithets toward minority members of the society is as American as apple pie. Attempting to alter history by expunging words from classic text doesn't change the ugly facts. The language in Huckelberry Finn is reflective of the vernacular of the period. To change it is to distort history. I consider it dishonest to attempt to obfuscate what at the time were widely held values at the time of the writing of this great American classic. For those who are still confused by the use of the word in certain circles; social conditioning has led to what might be described as cultural self-loathing. If you're called something for generations eventually you'll come to see yourself as such. Evoking the slur yourself dilutes the impact of feeling viewed as such by the society at large. The continued implementation of such a term is indicative of the necessity to instill a sense of self-worth in those whom have been disenfranchised for the past 400 yrs.

January 08 2011 at 8:12 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Political Correctness is going to be the death of America as the Founding Fathers intended it to be and as we know it.

January 08 2011 at 1:07 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

If every editor since the Council of Nicaea in the 4th Century could edit the Old and New Testaments so that the language would be understandable, and if the C of E could rewrite the WHOLE thing for its own purposes in the 17th Century (in honor of King James), then how is Mark Twain suddenly inviolable?

January 07 2011 at 7:20 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply


January 07 2011 at 7:17 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Changing the text of literary classics won't change today's use of the term. Use of this term is a personal choice. Most have turned away from its use. But still, as with most of the posters to this site, still hear it being used, mostly by those who claim it offensive if someone else uses the term. But that same segment, to my knowledge, aren't clamoring to have the nasty term removed from another literary classic, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which is peppered with this word. Of course, that classic was penned by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and is probably granted the same clemency as rappers using offensive language in their music that I object to.

Huckleberry Finn was a fictional character used, not as a method of offending anyone. Twain was accurately recording the lifestyle at the time, including the terms. If anything, teachers should use it as an adjunct in teaching to say, "This is where our society was over a hundred years ago. We all accept that terms and ideas like these have changed. We've further to go. Where should we go next?"

January 07 2011 at 7:05 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to gr8handz's comment

Here, here! I cannot more emphatically agree! I had forgotten about the the use of the word in "Uncle Tom's Cabin". Come to think of it, wasn't the term also used in "The Grapes of Wrath"?
As a future teacher I too can see myself telling the class first about the background in history of the book, then as we read through the chapters, pointing out the terms, the use of different terminologies and venaculars and finally at the end of the book leading the students into seeing where we were as a society during the time period of the book, where we are now in history and where we should go in the future. I would point out it is they, like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer that are in charge of thier own destinies and in part, can help influence history in some small way on thier own through their actions. That it is up to them, as adults to make sure that our nation does not fall back into these types of attitude or treatment of people of other races or cultures.
If the book is editted, then how can this valuable history lesson and moral lesson be taught so that it does not happen again? Steralizing history does not make it better, it only opens up future generations to make the same mistakes instead of learn by them.

January 20 2011 at 9:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tammy Livingston


January 07 2011 at 5:24 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

As a former English teacher who has taught Huck Finn, I am appalled at the idea of sanitizing it. I spent at least two days prepping my students on the historical aspects of the novel so they understood the context. I explained that the term "******" meant something totally different back then. We discussed its usage and they understood the difference before we even began reading together.
After that discussion, I had several students that didn't want to utter the word when reading aloud. I respected their wishes and they used the word "slave" instead. But, this was only after the lesson & discussion we previously had.
Yes, the utter mistreatment of African Americans and Native Americans is part of our history. We need to acknowledge it and not run from it or try to change it. We are to blame and we need to take the responsibility for the actions of our forefathers. Sanitizing history because we can't take the blame is preposterous. I'm sure that Mark Twain is rolling over in his grave at the thought of his masterpiece being rewritten for a society that runs from the history that he chose to capture & keep in the innocent voice of Huck Finn. We truly should be ashamed of ourselves. History is just that. It is not to be rewritten to fit the present times. It is to be relished and learned from - good or bad.

January 07 2011 at 5:09 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to ginaleader21's comment

It sounds like you do an excellent job of teaching. The book is banned in our school district though and many others. Maybe this action will get it back into schools.

January 07 2011 at 11:01 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I couldn't agree with you more! The unfortunate reality is that most Americans miss the irony in designating Feb. "Black History Month". The history of minorities is as much a part of American history as is George Washington. However, the full account of the experiences and contributions of people of other than European decent have been minimalized....and in most cases completely ignored. The institution of Black History month amounts to historical segregation. The underlying effects of such practice perpetuate the notion of minorities remaining in "other" status. "When lions write the history books hunters will cease being heroes."

January 08 2011 at 8:20 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

How are children going to learn perspective and how to interpret content from this? Twain's comment on editing his books a hundred years after his death would probably be, "It's probably easier to read in polite company, but the gentry are going to miss the self reflection." What's next? Shall we put digital clothes on the piles of dead in the photos of Auschwitz? Life has ugly lessons to learn.

January 07 2011 at 2:52 PM Report abuse +12 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to firstad's comment

Fine, have them read Chaucer in olde English.

January 07 2011 at 7:20 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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