January 8, 2011

Other N-Words

News that a new and politically correct edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be published this year by NewSouth Books has been met generally with derision and condemnation from Twain scholars.(1) The concept seemed suspect from the start. As proposed by Auburn University professor and the NewSouth edition's editor Alan Gribben, the plan is to eliminate Twain's over-abundant use of a certain racial slur, the n-word, and replace it with the slightly less offensive, presumably more humane, and thus imminently more "teachable" word, "slave." Gribben's waffling explanation didn't help much to dispel the disingenuousness of it:

"The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language. As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact. Even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative."(2)

Without a doubt, Mark Twain (aka Samuel L. Clemens) used the n-word in Huckleberry Finn because he felt it was the only way to authentically depict the attitudes and mores of the 1840's-era characters in his fictional work. To give his novel the most realistic ambiance of a pre-Civil War America, Clemens had his fictional characters use such words and thereby attached an immediacy and relevance to their actions within their particular epistemic conditions. What is more, Clemens effectively encapsulates both class and generational distinctions by showing how his young protagonists, Huck and Tom Sawyer, and the majority of the "uneducated" adults in both Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, used the n-word but the older narrator carefully avoided the pejorative term and instead uses "colored" or "Negro."(3)

Let me quickly and parenthetically introduce a sidebar on that questionable word's appearance in published works, so as to provoke a discussion on whether or not NewSouth Books should have also elided "Negro" from Huckleberry Finn. That other n-word has fallen in and out of favor over the years, and we can thank the good folks at Google for their new Ngram Viewer (yet another n-word!) to allow us to peruse data on the use of both n-words in print over the last 200 years.

It goes without saying that as a teaching tool Twain's stark rendering of bigotry, hatred and prejudice opens up the potential for productive conversations between students and educators about race relations in the United States, both prior to the Civil War and after. Noted Twain biographer, Ron Power, spoke out passionately about this last week:

"Huckleberry Finn and the use of 'nigger' is the ultimate teachable moment in American literature," Powers says. "It cries out for conversation between teachers and students. It cries out for context."

Instead of being frightened and uncomfortable by Huckleberry Finn and its use of the n-word, teachers should approach this head on. For example, students might be interested in defending how some African-American rap artists use the n-word, and perhaps this would be a way to engage ideas about the social implications of language and its cultural power. The n-word has a deeper connection within African-American culture and is bandied about differently by blacks. What are the issues concerning the perpetuation of a 200-year old racial slur and its subsequent "flattening" through sustained and, dare I say it, loving use by emblematic power "Playas" in urban contemporary music? Will these kinds of conversations ensue over Twain's use of the word "slave" in Huckleberry Finn?

Ironically, Prof. Gribben might be compared to Mark Twain's own perceptions of Huck Finn that was found in one of Twain's notes. Huck was described as having "a sound heart and a deformed conscience" and one might characterize Prof. Gribben in similar terms. Gribben's intent to soften Huckleberry Finn to make it palatable for potential new audiences perhaps reveals "heart" but his mis-recognition of the contextuality of language reflects the often shoddy foresight of those educators who would damn art in pursuit of ideology.


(1)"Indeed, Twain scholar Thomas Wortham, at UCLA, compared Gribben to Thomas Bowdler (who published expurgated versions of Shakespeare for family reading), telling PW that "a book like Professor Gribben has imagined doesn't challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?'"

(2) From An excerpt from the editor's introduction to Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition by Dr. Alan Gribben.

(3) It was also troubling that this week in their reading of the Constitution of the United States in the House of Representatives, members skipped those passages that condoned chattel slavery, as if their censorship would deny that slavery ever existed in America.


Oscar Devonian said...

Censoring the word is tantamount to covering your eyes and blocking your ears when someone approaches you with a problem... seems like a very strange choice.

nosey parker said...

i'd agree. long story short...you shouldn't take works of art out of context...unless you're an artist. Twain was a vessel of the time when most white writers neglected the subject of slavery and white "gentilism".

the other lesson is that people with money and power can mostly do what they want with it.
no need to be careful or smart. the perpetrators of censorship aren't changing the legacy in the long run. they're thinking that they're making MT correct for the little ones. soft porn doesn't really tell you the whole story.

i don't know if this is relevant but they're white people. southern whites with they're er...um hearts and not their minds in the right place. wait till they read Letter's From Earth. not so much about the N-word but a biblical satire pov.

thanks for posting this.