COLUMN: Worry more about how we use racial slurs today than in 'Huck Finn'

Friday, January 7, 2011 | 3:15 p.m. CST; updated 7:17 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Perhaps one of the kindest things Alan Gribben has done for Mark Twain is to edit the N-word out of two of his famous works.

Since word has spread that the English professor is publishing a combined edition of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” people who haven’t read either book in decades, or ever, are fighting for their linguistic integrity. After a while, the controversy surrounding this edition will be a vague memory at best, but for now, the small-scale project (NewSouth Books is only publishing 7,500 copies) is igniting discussions nationwide about the repulsive nature of racism in the antebellum South and the importance of letting it remain repulsive by keeping Twain’s original language intact.

Gribben has said he decided to publish the sanitized edition after teachers complained to him about being unable to teach the books as written. As a former high school English teacher, I understand. If you have ever had to explain yourself to an unhappy parent, you do, too.

Some people have argued that removing the N-word from curricula is silly when high school students are exposed to the word all the time. Although it’s true there’s no shortage of places teenagers can hear the N-word — music, movies, the hallway at school — in my experience, what matters to administrators is that students aren’t hearing the N-word with the school board’s blessing.

People against Gribben’s change bring up another moot point: that Twain — who famously said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. It is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” — would disapprove.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter what Twain would think. The message an artist intends to send with a published work is only part of that work’s meaning. How the audience receives and interprets that message is out of the author’s hands, which is why attempting to teach a book like “Huck Finn” in context is no easy task: The way high schoolers react to Twain’s representation of antebellum racial relationships is as varied as the students themselves.

What has struck me the most about discussions surrounding Gribben’s audacity in adulterating the work of Missouri’s favorite son is the power of the N-word itself. Gribben’s edition replaces it with “slave,” as if the two are interchangeable. Logically, there is no reason “slave” should be any less offensive. Slavery is an institution that treats human beings as a commodity. “Slave” should be more, not less, offensive than the N-word, and yet nobody calls “slave” the “S-word.”

In fact, the N-word is the standard many Americans use to measure the offensiveness of a word. We are encouraged not to use the “R-word” for people with cognitive disabilities or the “I-word” for undocumented workers. While using politically correct terms in place of words that are needlessly hurtful isn’t the worst thing you could do, the truth is no English word compares to the N-word in terms of the hatred it communicates. No other word conjures the centuries of racial tension behind it.

So why is “slave” supposed to be less offensive than the N-word? Because state-sponsored slavery as an institution is over. I know that human trafficking still happens, and I do not want to trivialize that issue, but perhaps the reason Gribben’s upcoming edition of “Huck Finn” is supposedly easier to stomach is that the word “slave” only reminds us of a regrettable time in American history. It doesn’t force us to confront the way we think about racial tensions that still exist today.

I’ve never called someone the N-word, and I can safely promise that I never will. But if I’m being honest, my motives for keeping that word out of my vocabulary are less than pure.

Sometimes I’m more concerned with not seeming racist than I am with not being racist. If I say the N-word, I have to live with the fact that I’m OK with saying a racial slur. But if I fail to see racial inequity, I don’t have to come to terms with any uncomfortable facts about myself.

The N-word is offensive because it’s dehumanizing, because it sends the message to minorities that no matter what other accolades they might earn, they will never rise above a denigrating word applied indiscriminately to all others of the same race. But you don’t have to use the N-word to send that message.

A new Arizona law forbids public schools from teaching courses aimed at individual ethnic groups lest members of these groups see themselves as oppressed. In South Carolina, two state representatives prefiled a bill allowing the DMV to issue specialty plates that say “Coon Hunter.” And defendants charged with killing white people are multiple times more likely to be sentenced to death than if the victim is black.

There’s nothing wrong with refusing to say the N-word, and there’s nothing wrong with preferring not to see it in a book. But does keeping the word out of our vocabulary mean anything if our actions send the same message that makes the word so offensive in the first place?

Instead of worrying about the N-word’s place in a 120-year-old book, maybe we should worry more about its place in our everyday lives.

Jessica Stephens taught seventh through 10th grade English at a Christian school in North Carolina for two years. She's now a master's candidate in the School of Journalism and an assistant news editor.

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Paul Allaire January 7, 2011 | 4:32 p.m.

Who is putting the titles on these articles? I had to read halfway through to see that the opinion expressed was the opposite of what I expected from reading the title.

So anyway, the point of this is that we should let some torch and pitchfork wielding parents of students rewrite any book that might be found in a classroom. It kind of reminds me of how the Texas school board edited some textbooks to remove history about some famous people because they weren't white enough.
George O would have a field day making up new words to describe our collective tendencies. How about Dumbthink?

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire January 7, 2011 | 4:34 p.m.

That's right. People didn't really use the N word. Read here...

(Report Comment)
Jessica Stephens January 7, 2011 | 6:19 p.m.

Mr. Allaire, I wrote the headline, and I think it does sum up the point I was trying to make: That we should think more about the message our actions (or lack thereof) send now than about whether the N-word is appropriate in a book from the 1800s. And regardless of whether parents are wielding pitchforks, the idea of suggesting that parents should have no say in the content their children are exposed to is rather ridiculous. Do parents always know best? No, but neither do teachers or school boards, and parents deserve to have their opinions considered.

If I sent the message that sugar-coating history is OK, that wasn't my intention. The point I was trying to get across is that fighting to keep the N-word in "Huck Finn" is less important than fighting to keep the hatred behind the word out of the way we treat others.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin January 7, 2011 | 8:22 p.m.

So I get this warning before posting -- and spelling out the forbidden word: "Watch your mouth! The word "n----r" is not allowed here."

Good heavens! What has become of the American academy?

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called 'Huckleberry Finn,'" Ernest Hemingway wrote in The Green Hills of Africa. "It's the finest book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

All of which means the very worst thing Alan Gribben could do -- to Huck Finn, to American literature, and to American culture -- is edit the N-word out of Mark Twain.

One of the grand achievements of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which Twain wrote as a seasoned writer in the midst of middle age, is its supreme command of a regional dialect, of which the word "ni--er" was a critical part. It was as raw a word then as it is now, and said volumes -- with its harsh, grating sound and guttural inferences -- about the way white Americans viewed their black brethren, human beings stolen from their homelands to toil here as little more than owned livestock.

Twain's masterful, N-word laden dialect in "Huck Finn" produced some of the finest writing in all literature, including one of history's most famous opening lines:

"You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth."

Mainly, he told the TRUTH. Don't underestimate the power of what Huck is saying here. He's saying that what you're about to read -- about his burgeoning friendship with Jim and the moral choice he makes about half way through the book to "go to Hell" rather than return Jim to slavery -- is the truth.

A hard truth inextricably bound to the word "ni--er." A terrible truth bound to everything that word means, every moral boundary it crosses, every terrible omen it represents, every human ill it implies and inflicts.

With that word, and just two more words, Twain wrote the quintessential expression of slavery's moral outrage in "Huck Finn," something I'll post shortly, (though apparently you'll have to read the unabridged novel to get the full power of Twain's statement).

(Report Comment)
Dan Claxton January 7, 2011 | 9:26 p.m.

Hey, Jessica,
That was a rockin' commentary, well thought out and well posited. I have to say, though, that I believe "revising" the great Mark Twain's work is deplorable.
"Huckleberry Finn" reflected life as it was at the time. It was Twain's world. People used the N-word, and I believe sanitizing this fact does a disservice to our young people.
Heck, I studied Huck Finn in public school in Springfield, and my teachers dealt with the controversial stuff respectfully and professionally. I'm a better person for it.
Yes, we should focus on racial issues of today, but "sanitizing" brilliant works of literature to suit modern ideas of appropriateness is not the way to go.
Again, great piece. Makes one think. -- Dan

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith January 7, 2011 | 9:56 p.m.

Twain's "Huckleberry Finn" has long been considered America's greatest contribution to prose literature (America's greatest novel). It's an opinion with a surprising amount of agreement, from both domestic and foreign critics.

Forget about the "N" word, why would someone choose to modify an acknowledged literary masterpiece?

Do any of you recall the children's story "Little Black Sambo"? That's been revised to "Little Brave Sambo," then back to "Little Black Sambo" again, all in the name of political correctness. Good grief!

The "Sambo" story should be popular in Columbia, since it features tigers.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin January 8, 2011 | 11:31 a.m.

There's an almost perfect literary representation of slavery's immorality in the passage below, from Chapter 32 of Huckleberry Finn.

In it, Huck is impersonating Tom Sawyer to Tom's aunt Sally, who's either gone so long without seeing her nephew or has never seen him that she doesn't recognize the impersonation. She's thrilled he's finally visiting. To explain his arrival, Huck (as Tom) tells a story of riverboats run aground on sandbars and a fatal accident.

Twain put his knowledge of riverboats and stern-wheelers to good use throughout the book, but especially here.

Accidents aboard those vessels as they plied the Mississippi were often fiery and fatal.

Sally speaks first, then Huck. I added an extra "g" to the forbidden word to get it past the auto-censor:

CHAPTER 32 -- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

"Now I can have a good look at you; and, laws-a-me, I've been hungry for it a many and a many a time, all these long years, and it's come at last! We been expecting you a couple of days and more. What kep' you? -- boat get aground?"

"Yes'm -- she -- "

"Don't say yes'm -- say Aunt Sally. Where'd she get aground?"

I didn't rightly know what to say, because I didn't know whether the boat would be coming up the river or down. But I go a good deal on instinct; and my instinct said she would be coming up -- from down towards Orleans. That didn't help me much, though; for I didn't know the names of bars down that way. I see I'd got to invent a bar, or forget the name of the one we got aground on -- or -- Now I struck an idea, and fetched it out:

"It warn't the grounding -- that didn't keep us back but a little. We blowed out a cylinder-head."

"Good gracious! anybody hurt?"

"No'm. Killed a niggger."

"Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt. Two years ago last Christmas your uncle Silas was coming up from Newrleans on the old Lally Rook, and she blowed out a cylinder-head and crippled a man."


What's Twain saying here? It may be obvious or if not, read it again. As critics have repeatedly pointed out over the years, 13 words in this passage -- including the forbidden word -- represent one of literature's most powerful statements about slavery and the vast racial divide of that era, partly by the way those words are so casually spoken.

(Report Comment)
Jessica Stephens January 9, 2011 | 1:54 p.m.

Dan, this reminds me of an e-conversation we had last summer about Glenn Beck's holding a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech. With both that situation and this one, I guess my take is that the problem will take care of itself, but the discussions surrounding the issue are valuable.

With Glenn Beck, the rally was just a publicity play, but that's his MO. It was offensive at best, but forgettable considering how many offensive things he does. But I read a lot of valuable commentaries about the Constitution's applying even to the unpopular, and I think the focus in much of what I read was more on the significance of Dr. King's speech than Beck, which is how it should be.

With this sanitized version of "Huck Finn," my crystal ball is telling me few people will buy or read it. In the wire story I linked to, another Twain scholar says this edition is not the first one to remove the N-word and the previous sanitized edition "had no traction." But I've read myriad valuable commentaries about this upcoming edition, and if this issue is a springboard for people to talk openly about racial tensions than are older than the country itself, I'm glad it's got us talking.

(Report Comment)
Nathan Stephens January 10, 2011 | 4:38 a.m.

I would be interested in hearing what people like Juan Williams, Michael Steele, Bill Cosby, Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson and Julianne Malveaux think of this 'revision debate.' These are all Black scholars that have the ability to speak from the standpoint of interpreting the N-word in the book through a different lens and providing academic commentary versus people whose debate hinges primarily upon 'political correctness vs. literary criticism' only.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith January 10, 2011 | 9:02 a.m.

@ Nathan Stephens:

May I add two names to your list?

Thomas Sowell (Stanford University). Sowell is considered by some to be America's leading Conservative intellectual, black or white.

Walter Williams (George Mason University). Syndicated columnist.

These two have had plenty to say on the subject of "revisionism."

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