Tuesday, January 4, 2011


There's a controversy raging. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has been banned in many schools during much of its existence for a lot of different reasons. Southerners hated it when it was first published because one of its heroes is black -- the slave Jim, whom Huckleberry Finn does his best to transport to freedom on a raft even though he's convinced he'll go to hell for his efforts. They also hated it because it showed, up close and personal, the way of Southern whites of that era.

Others have banned it from schools because of the frequent use of the N word within its pages.  The pejorative is used more than 210 times in Huckleberry Finn. Polite, politically correct society doesn't like the word.  I too loathe the word; I heard it snarled far too many time when I worked in Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia less than 40 years ago, where it was still quite fashionable and common among whites.

Now Huck Finn has been released with the N word taken out and replaced with the word "slave." As is the case with so many other Twain lovers, I am almost apoplectic over the change.Twain must be hopping mad in heaven.

Mark Twain knew exactly what he was doing when he used that word where he used it: we was exposing the underbelly of the monster, not denigrating the poor soul who had to endure the label and continue to abide in a land where his skin color relegated him to the level of beasts of burden, as property.

When I read the book as a teenager I didn't think the N word made Jim any less noble, any less a man, any less a hero than he was.  When I read the N word, the people I focused on were the speakers of the word. For the most part, they were trained from an early age to honor and respect white people and to use and/or abuse black people in the same way they used and/or abused the animals that they raised, fed, worked, and killed. Those were the times in which Huckleberry Finn lived; Twain just wrote it all down after coming to the conclusion in later years that the way he had been raised in the south was wrong and that slavery and the treatment of the black man and his family was a scar on the Southerners' soul and a blight on Southern soil.

To take the N word out of the narrative subjugates the truth; it sanitizes what happened to black people 24/7/365 for hundreds of years, including into much of the 20th century.  It should hurt to read the word; it should  make the reader recoil as we discover the truth about the African American experience in America.

Now, if it's a choice between making the sanitized version available to schools or having the original version banned from schools, I suppose I would have to vote for... oh, but I can't. 

I simply cannot vote for exchanging "slave" for the N word.  The two words are not kindred; they are not equals; they are not what Twain intended to convey. Twain intended to convey exactly what he conveyed. Had he felt "slave" was the correct word, he would have used it. He used the common everyday vernacular of the people. He was justified in using it. His pen was the well-tuned "microphone" of the period.

Those who read the book gain a greater understanding of why the term is as painful and insulting as it is. The way Twain uses it in each instance tells the tale. No other word is right; no other word can substitute because no other word is as God-awful as that one is.

Today's children weren't here when Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood up, when fire hoses and police dogs were turned loose on blacks in the South in the 50's and 60's. I was. I remember those sights and sounds emanating from the television set in our front room and recoiling. But I had no real, palpable access to the periods of history when blacks had no legal say in their futures until I read Huckleberry Finn. That's when black history truly began to come alive for me. To hear Jim sorrowing over his still-enslaved wife and children and planning to get a job up north and then find some way to buy them.. or to steal them if their owners wouldn't agree to sell them to him... it just broke my heart.

Twain's book takes us back to a time we all wish had never been a part of our history. And yes, you bet it's painful. But readers see how Jim handles it, how he continues to hope, dream and work for a better tomorrow... one that sadly will never come in his lifetime.

No American should miss Jim's and Huck's experience. Or the Native American experience. Or the Chinese American or Japanese American experience.  All were part of the fabric of America. It ain't all pretty.  (Those who want to pretend it was are both delusonal and dangerous.)

But it's getting prettier by the day.  If you don't believe me, just look back. Read Huckleberry Finn... the way Twain wrote it!


Carl Rylander said...

Perhaps there should just be a forward, to the unabridged version, stating that the word is now unacceptable. Otherwise, people might pick it up, especially kids.

Antje Probst said...

I think the N word is a part of the american history. Changing it would gloss over a painful time. This was surely not what Mr. Twain had in mind when he wrote Huckleberry Finn.
If we want to learn about our history so called political correctness is not helpful. Because if we want to understand history and maybe want to make some things better it also means to learn the painful things.
But I agree with Carl Rylander.