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.
But 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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