In college, a buddy and I took a history of film class. One week, the movie we watched was Birth of a Nation. It’s a classic movie by D.W. Griffith, known for basically creating a lot of the “language” of film craft. The plot, however, involved how the Klan rose up to save the South.* What ensued after the movie was an extremely spirited discussion about why the movie was a classic, the historical context, and its oh so many moments of racefail. Which brings us to the latest fail moment as …
…for decades, [Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn] has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation’s most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: “nigger.” … Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the “n” word (as well as the “in” word, “Injun”) by replacing it with the word “slave.”
At first blush, I’m reminded of when New York City decided to symbolically ban the n-word. That was in 2007, so I assume no one in New York City has used the word since. And I imagine this deniggerized version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will meet with similar success.
We are caught in the entanglement of good intentions. The desire to get this classic in the hands of children seems laudable. As writers, we want to be widely read, ideally read for the ages, and finding new generations of readers to appreciate our work is always the dream. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a satire, that’s often misunderstood. (The work also has many thematic, problematic issues that go beyond simple use of the N-word, but one issue at a time.)
So one may simply have to wrestle with the idea of whether or not Twain’s classic is meant for kids in the first place. The teaching moment this book represents is ideal for what schools are about. Actually, the moment is required as the book requires context as a historical record of how black people were seen, talked about, and treated. Likewise, discussion of the book and the usage of the n-word requires maturity and context and if a teacher and their students aren’t ready to do that work, perhaps they aren’t ready for the book. But the thing is that we ought to be discussing the complicated issue of this country’s legacy of racism a lot earlier than college.
I’m a big believer in history and historical records. sanitizing records isn’t the same as dealing with an issue. Historical artifacts can be painful to read, hear, and see,*** but it’s just as important that they be preserved intact. We can’t start sanitizing history then act surprised when Jim Crow moments rear their ugly heads in these “post-racial” times. Swapping out the n-word doesn’t undo the legacy of slavery and hatred. All is does is gloss over an uncomfortable moment rather then enter into it and deal with it, which only feeds into our cultural immaturity.
Plus, even as a kid, there was nothing worse than watching a sanitized version of the Blue Brothers when it came on TBS. For better or worse, the language was part of the joy of the experience.
*There came a point where white actors in blackface, portraying newly elected black congressmen, put their feet up on their desks as they ate fried chicken and watermelon between bouts of chasing white women. While the class held their breath waiting for me to start a riot, when I burst out laughing because it reminded me of the In Living Color skit which aired earlier that week, depicting Clarence Thomas doing the exact same thing. The movie was so patently ridiculous, it was hard for me to take it seriously enough to be offended.
**Sure, there’s the notion of artistic intent also, but then again, public domain means we’re also stuck with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies et al.
***While I know full well the argument about the pain of reading the n-word, it would probably hold more weight if hip hop tracks weren’t filled with the word. In fact, I’d love it if hip hop artists were required to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to better understand the historical impact of the word they so casually toss about.