So I think I stumbled over this issue a day or two late, but I had to write something: according to Entertainment Weekly’s Shelf Life, the NewSouth Books‘ upcoming edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will omit all instances of the “N” word, replacing it with “slave.” The new edition will also be losing “Injun.”
Why? Well, we all know that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn continues to be one of the most popular books to ban, the usage of the N word being the primary reason for this. Mark Twain expert Alan Gribben, who is spearheading the effort, says the removing certain words will “put the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it due to forces beyond their control (overprotective parents and the school boards they frighten).”
OK, I get that. I’ve never been bothered by the use of the N word in Huck Finn, and neither, apparently, was my high school since I read it in 9th grade. However, I do understand the need to get around those who seek to ban books.
However, throwing in the towel and giving in to those who censor literature is not right. The use of the N word in Huck Finn is historically accurate for the period it was written, and while the N word is certainly considered offensive today, to pretend that the word was never there is a gross bastardization of history. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away, and while it may be shameful to think black people were considered as such, we should never attempt to forget or rewrite history. If we do, well as the old adage goes, we’re doomed to repeat it.
Besides manhandling history, this is also a gross attempt to neuter what is considered one of the greatest novels in American history. Huck Finn is important. And if students were reading the story as Mark Twain intended, they would realize that Twain was anti-slavery. The book lifts up the character of Jim and casts doubt over the treatment of African Americans in the 19th century. I was always astounded that Huck Finn was one of the most banned books in the US; they want to ban Mark Twain? He wrote about Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher, for pete’s sake. When it comes down to it, though, book banning and issues of censorship tend to enrage me in general. Knowledge shouldn’t be shielded from the public, and I firmly believe those who try to ban books from libraries and schools are cowards. They’re afraid to face the free dissemination of ideas and information, and the kind of consequences that might arise from learning something new.
When I posted this article on Facebook yesterday, a friend of mine said this reminded him of the quote:
We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘fuck’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene!
I couldn’t agree more. From what are we protecting our children? And of how much are they already aware? We hand our children violent video games and plop them in front of television shows that appeal to the basest level of their intellect, and yet parents somehow feel it’s awful for their children to read semi-controversial subjects in literature. And like I’ve said before: this is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for God’s sake, not smut or novels written for adults. This is the story of a young man coming to terms with the world—the perfect novel for the millions of junior high and high school students who read it every year. Our children are more mature and aware of the world than ever before. It is a rare young person who hasn’t come across the N word before they reach high school. And if they haven’t, would we rather them learn about the N word in rap songs—songs that also speak of guns, drugs and degrading women—or world-class literature?
What it comes down to is this: it takes less effort to censor something than to teach. Having the N word in Huck Finn is a great opportunity for English teachers to discuss the ramifications of this word in a historic, cultural context. If parents are afraid their children will misinterpret its usage, then they can read the book along with their child and host their own discussions at home. But no. That is too much work. It is much easier to give in to censors and change one of the most iconic works in the American literary canon.