T HE P O IN T- C O UN T E R P O IN T P UBL I C AT I O N F O R M A R C H 9, 2 011
the censoring of “nigger”
POINT NIGGER IN HUCK FINN EDI TH FRE Y ER
Any act of censorship harms our liberty and infringes on the writer’s artistic intent.
Volume 24 Issue 15
Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.” He, like all authors, selected his words with intention. Each of those words, including the recently (and very publicly) debated nigger, appears on the page for a reason. The word is an American invention that has been woven through centuries of conflict and distress. It burns; it is supposed to. That is the exact reason for which Twain used it so often (219 times) throughout his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. As a college student in contemporary America, I don’t feel that much is hidden from the youth. The new edition of the book in which slave replaces nigger, an effort spearheaded by a professor at Auburn University, is aimed at high school students. It is more than ignorant to think that most 16-year-olds today are unaware of the word nigger or do not understand its negative connotation. It surrounds us in popular music, and still for some, in an unfortunately reincarnated colloquial use. If students need to be protected from words or ideas like these, then they are not mature enough to be reading a book like Huckleberry Finn in the first place. Nevertheless, if they do not know the word now, they will soon. Sweeping our mess under the rug does not make it go away, it just hides it for a while. Parts of American history are devastating and shameful. But we do not get the chance to groom our past—that is not how time works. As awful as it may be, our country’s story cannot and will not be erased. We should be shocked that the word nigger was once a colloquialism just as we should be shocked that slavery ever happened. We do not edit the chapter on slavery when teaching history, and we should not do so in English classes. Teaching protected, censored information produces pseudo-intellectualism, and eradicating the word nigger is counterproductive because its removal does nothing but shelter students. I, a student at a public university, was raised to believe the purpose of education is to open minds, not to close them. If the word nigger is censored, where do we draw the line? Do we change the story line of Huckleberry Finn, covering the lines about Jim ever having been a slave with permanent marker, scratching out all of Huck’s realization that Jim is so much more than an underling? If we do, we erase the educational importance of Huck’s character. Even as a member of his time’s racist governing class, he is able to transcend society’s expectations through his poignant friendship with Jim. If we censor the essence of the time period, we censor along with it the importance of Twain’s lessons. This message has been especially distorted by the specific choice of word replacement in the new version of Huckleberry Finn. Contextually, the word “slave” is wildly inappropriate, as Jim has already escaped from
slavery. One could say that euphemistically calling Jim “slave” is actually worse than using “nigger” since slave formally binds him to the institution from which he has just broken away. This shortsightedness takes us back two steps as we call him only what he used to be. In Twain’s novel, Jim is on a quest to buy his family’s freedom. If he himself is referred to as a slave throughout the book, the black-and-white significance of his mission is blurred. In reality, there is no suitable replacement for Twain’s original word choice. Within a broader context, creative censorship is unequivocally never acceptable. What if we had tampered with Picasso’s paintings because his Cubist representations were just too abstract and offensive? Art is meant to shock and ignite, whether it is literature, design, music, dance or theatre. But creative liberties are to be taken by the artists themselves, not by those who consume and critique. If we change Twain’s words, then they are simply no longer his; if we tailor a musician’s song or a filmmaker’s movie to our own tastes, then it becomes something completely different. Art exists because of the creator’s intention, and the new edition of Huckleberry Finn has lost its integrity because it is, in fact, no longer Twain’s work at all. Does the new edition of Huckleberry Finn propose that we never mention the word nigger? That we make believe as though it never existed and is not a part of our past? Do we then discuss the word change in classrooms or attempt to ignore the whole problem altogether, pretending that students are unaware that they are reading a mangled text? Mark Twain used the word nigger on purpose. He meant to infuriate. Let us not take the easy way out; rather, let us channel that fury into a lesson that will allow students to actively participate in the debate over a century-old issue that will likely never disappear from American society. The author is a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in Dance and Communication Studies. She plans to pursue a career in modern dance creation and performance and is very interested in presidential history.
COUNTERPOINT SLAVE IN HUCK FINN Know what it feels like to be called a “nigger”? I don’t. I can’t think of any slur that can hurt me. I’m a white, lower middle-class Ohioian and the son of a steel worker. My ancestors rode the boats from Germany and Scotland. What’s the worst you can call me, a drunken Nazi haggis-eater? I can’t imagine what it would be like to read a novel that uses a racist slur aimed at me 219 times as in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In a book of 368 pages, that’s an average of six times every ten pages. They appear in ones and twos, but sometimes rush by in a herd, like this passage, when the slave Jim brags that witches had once put him in a trance: “Jim was monstrous proud about it, and he got so he wouldn’t hardly notice the other niggers. Niggers would come miles to hear Jim tell about it, and he was more looked up to than any nigger in that country. Strange niggers would stand with their mouths open and look him all over, same as if he was a wonder. Niggers is always talking about witches in the dark by the kitchen fire; but whenever one was talking and letting on to know all about such things, Jim would happen in and say, ‘Hm! What you know ’bout witches?’ and that nigger was corked up and had to take a back seat.” That’s a lot of “niggers.” Uncomfortable? Then you might understand why Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar and English professor at Alabama’s Auburn University, is putting out an edition of Huckleberry Finn without the “N-word.” If you’re still having trouble, check out the South Park episode “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson.” It makes the same point: white people can’t understand the power of “the N-word.” Or, for a more elevated discussion, let me quote W.E.B. Du Bois. In The Souls of Black Folk, he wrote that African-Americans inhabit “a world which yields [them] no true self-consciousness, but only lets [them] see [themselves] through the revelation of the other world […] this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” In other words, “nigger” is not just a word to some blacks. It’s a dagger. Huckleberry Finn retains its educational power 126 years later because it offers insights on race and slavery in American society during Twain’s time. But Twain was an artist, and he also knew what readers could bear. He willingly let himself be censored, particularly by his wife, Olivia. Thanks to her and Twain’s friend, William Dean Howells, Huckleberry Finn underwent hundreds of deletions and changes. “Damn” became “dern” or “blame.” References to bodily functions such as sweating or bowels were modified. Twain’s daughter, Clara, recalls her mother several times cutting a “delightfully dreadful part.”
Twain’s motivations behind self-censorship were serious. He believed that children and virgins should not be exposed to vulgarity. He warned Olivia during their courtship to stay away from Shakespeare and Don Quixote until “some hand has culled them of their grossness.” He didn’t mind slipping the phrase “they comb me all to hell” into Tom Sawyer until children started reading it. So why was “nigger” overlooked? A nasty word, true, but not the universally recognized insult it has become. When Huckleberry Finn was published in the United States in 1885, it was excoriated for its vulgar words, but “nigger” wasn’t among them. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the word began to draw objections. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, as a rule, we should keep “nigger” in the popular culture. If it’s good enough for Twain, then let’s readmit the banished. I’m looking forward to reading Agatha Christie’s 1939 mystery Ten Little Niggers and attending The Mikado to hear the Lord High Executioner sing that the people on his list who will never, ever be missed include the “nigger serenade and the others of his race.” In the end, the fight over Twain is a tempest in a teacup. Altering 219 words out of the book’s 111,000 words isn’t going to eradicate the millions of copies out there. In fact, the new edition might provide a firebreak against further attempts to ban the book by removing a lightning rod. It won’t defuse the discussion over race, in which the word is only a side issue. Exorcising “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn is also the logical outcome from the admission—beloved of English professors and poets—that words have power. They can heal and uplift. They can also hurt. Works of art should entertain, make us uncomfortable, and spur enlightenment, but they shouldn’t inflict pain.
BIL L PE SCHEL
Removing the word “nigger” does not significantly change Twain’s intent; the change enriches the discussion of his work.
The author wrote a book called Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature’s Great Adventures, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes.
March 9, 2011
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NEXT ISSUE Stereotyping
FIVE THINGS about Mark Twain & Huckleberry Finn The contested new edition of Huckleberry Finn also replaces the racial slur “injun” with “slave.”
Publisher’s Weekly 2011
Huckleberry Finn was ranked as the fifth most frequently challenged book in the United States by the American Library Association. CMG Worldwide
“The N-word” became a popular euphemism for “nigger” during the infamous O.J. Simpson trial when a police detective was accused of racist language. Wikipedia
How do we understand the intent behind using the word “nigger”? Look for the next issue of Consider to unpack the meanings of stereotypes and their implications.
Mark Twain’s birth name was Samuel Longhorne Clemens. Before adopting Mark Twain, he wrote under the pen name Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass. CMG Worldwide
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VOLUME 24 ISSUE 15
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