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.