Thursday, January 6, 2011

They will not thank us for this

I shouldn’t read the news as often as I do.

It rarely informs me of what I need to know (an rare exception today: my individual health insurance rate is about to go up, and I may need to find a new provider), and it tells me things that do nothing but piss me off.

NewSouth Books, an Alabama-based publishing company, is coming out with a version of Mark Twain’s 127-year-old classic, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” with every instance of the word “nigger” transformed into the word “slave”. (There are 219 in all, or slightly less than the “niggers” you can count on the average gangster rap CD.)

Now, NewSouth Books is just one publishing company, not an agency of the government. People around the world will continue to be able to buy and read the unexpurgated Huck Finn. Alan Gribben, the Auburn University at Montgomery (Alabama) who suggested the project to NewSouth, claims that a “nigger”-less Huck Finn fulfills a need in the marketplace: to make the book more acceptable to students. “[E]ven at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative,” he writes in the introduction to this new edition. Well, Professor Gribben, many of these students have no problem with audio encounters with the same racial appellative.

I don’t like the idea of a neutered Huck Finn. I wouldn’t read it, and if I were a teacher I wouldn’t use it in my class. First of all, I object to this for the same reason I didn’t like the colorization of black-and-white movies and TV shows (a practice which, I am happy to say, has virtually disappeared): we should view historical documents in the manner of their original creation, so that we see the past as it really was. A child watching colorized episodes of “I Love Lucy” will think that color TV was the norm in the 1950s, and a child reading Huck Finn without the word “nigger” will not understand the casual way the word was used back in the mid-1800s.

Secondly, without “nigger”, Huck Finn readers will lose a necessary lesson in contextualization. Yes, Huck says “nigger”, but his actions – befriending and protecting a runaway slave named Jim – prove he is anything but a racist. Huck says the word because he grew up with people using the word, and it’s the only word for black people that he knows. When well-intentioned scholars try to demonize a single word – and it is still just a word, not a blow to the head – it cheapens the value of education. Our young people will not thank us for hiding the truth from them.

Let us hope that this bowdlerized Huck Finn will fail, and fail hard; this is a trend that must end. Otherwise, a century from now people might be going through our blogs and picking off the “offensive” language. (and who knows what words people will think offensive then? “Salt”? “Hamburger”? “Coca-Cola”?)

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