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1.06.2011

Where's My N******?

The first time I read Huckleberry Finn was senior year in high school. My teacher was a short redheaded woman with a southern accent who had breast cancer a couple of years before and everytime someone said breast, she would touch her chest and begin her story. Of course, it being high school, we still read out loud in class (even though this was AP EngLit). At first, the students stumbled over the words, but then she showed us how to do it, correctly: "And to see the cool way of that nigger--why he wouldn't'a' give me the road if I hadn't shoved him out of the way." We then argued about what right a white man had at using the word "nigger," and of course, the lesson was that it was okay in literature, but this has not stopped the book from becoming challenged. In fact, we had to get our parents to sign permission slips for us to read the book. If we didn't get it signed, we would have to sit out and read books with another English teacher, a Black lady who smiled too much it mainly scared all the students, whose saying was: "If it offends one person, it offends everybody."

NewSouth is releasing an edition without the N word. According to Publisher's Weekly, the book will be released as a one volume piece (along with Tom Sawyer) in February, with a 7500 copy first run printing. Alan Gribben saw it as an option to the hurtful text of the original and some have argued that it is what it is: an option. Suzanne La Rosa, the cofounder of New South said this:

"What he suggested...was that there was a market for a book in which the n-word was switched out for something less hurtful, less controversial. We recognized that some people would say that this was censorship of a kind, but our feeling is that there are plenty of other books out there—all of them, in fact—that faithfully replicate the text, and that this was simply an option for those who were increasingly uncomfortable, as he put it, insisting students read a text which was so incredibly hurtful."

The question that this begs of course (all over the internet and the news [I heard it on NPR]) is: is it okay to change an author's work for the sake of political correctedness?

The New York Times has an excellent debate in their "Room to Debate" section of their online paper, featuring Jane Smiley, Francine Prose, and Jill Nelson.

Jane Smiley argues that we read the classics because they offer us historical data:

"Why are we reading a Shakespeare play or Huckleberry Finn? Well, because these works are great, but they also tell us something about the times in which they were created. Unfortunately, previous eras and dead authors often used language or accepted as normal sentiments that we now find unacceptable.
I think that the choices teachers make in this regard depend on which side of the equation they want to emphasize — do we teach "Huckleberry Finn" or "The Merchant of Venice" because they are great or because they are accurate depictions of their times, including attitudes that were held then?"

Smiley sees Huck Finn as a learning opportunity, a place for discussion. And isn't this the greatest part of literature: to make us talk, to help us learn, to let us face a something we wouldn't (in this case social issues of the 1800s). Using the cliche, "If we don't know our history, we are bound to repeat it," John Pappas writes at The Elephant Journal: "Erasing nigger from Huck Finn does not erase the terrors that occurred in this country but it makes us more willing to ignore it and repeat it in the future."

But this is at the expense of hurting readers--young readers--or at least making them feel uncomfortable.

I remember the way the blond girl from the lacrosse team (same girl I ran into a vending machine at track practice: after someone hands a baton to you, you run, idiot!) eyed the teacher as she read. The "N" word is not just uncomfortable to Blacks, but to others because we know of that history. We know we're not all supposed to say it. Likewise, I made a promise to myself never to read Jack London again because his work spews with racism; I can never honestly see what people saw in his work (in particular his short stories) that would make people consider them "classics." Jack London does not teach us of race, for him, it's an underlying assumption throughout his stories (I can't quote, I threw the book away). Why isn't anyone fighting to get London's racism? Or as, Gish Jen says, what about the racism in the works of T.S. Elliot, or Joseph Conrad. As she argues, it's about context and it's entirely up to the reader to put it into a context of some sort. And truly the author can't do otherwise: what is read is not merely the work of a writer's craft, it's what readers take from it, how they read it.

And in the case of Huck Finn, the argument has always been that the N word is part of the context, a reflection of time. If we clean it up, we are whitewashing history. "We may as well rename the Japanese Internment during World War II into “Happy Puppy Daisy Land” or start referring to the KKK as a “Unique Social Club," writes Pappas.

Another argument is presented by Francine Prose, who writes about prose and diction (diction is particularly important here because the book is written in a venacular dialect; if it's change the entire rhythm is skews, if even slightly):

"I think that the time and care Mark Twain put into choosing the words Huck Finn and those around him speak, into choosing the words they think, should be respected. If language is a bridge connecting us to the mind of the writer and the historical moment he is describing, then to tinker with that language — for whatever well-intentioned reasons — undermines not only the design but the solidity of that bridge."

In Prose's argument, the author is god. To mess with his/her wording is sacrilegious and against the point. The word "Nigger" and "slave" are too different (thus different words, duh!). Slave is not better than nigger. If one wants to rid the work of any obscenity it should be the way Jim is treated: "Jim’s problem is not that he is called a “nigger” but that he is chattel who can be freed or returned to his master." And changing that is against the entire point of the book, which is a satire of slavery in America.

And wasn't it Twain himself who said:

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Twain, indeed knew what he was doing. He's was screwing up with your head on purpose to get a reaction. In a way, he writes dangerously, kinda like Chuck Palanuiuk and etc, but instead of words, he incorporates racial and social history:

“I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote ‘Tom Sawyer’ & ‘Huck Finn’ for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave.”

Thus, is it "right" to rework/revise the work of an author to be politcally correct? Most likely no. Does the author have the obligation of being politically correct? Maybe. How would we react to a contemporary novel like Huck Finn?: As Jill Nelson points out, can we be offended anymore? Maybe?

Yet one thing I know for sure: Fuck Jack London. Honestly.


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