Wednesday, March 2, 2011

They Messed with Huck Finn

This story really bothered me when I first heard about it in January.  NewSouth Books plans to release a new version of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that removes the "N word" and replaces it with "slave." Also, the revised books will replace "Injun" with "Indian."

Alan Gribben, a Twain historian assisting with the revisions, believes the changes will allow more schools to remove the books from the banned lists and back into the classrooms. While I agree that both of these classics should be taught, or at least offered, in a high school classroom, I completely disagree with removing the racist and derogatory words.

First of all, since when was "nigger" a direct synonym for the word "slave?" There is a relationship, sure. But historically, they are two separate words. Here in St. Louis, I've waited for the Metrolink train in some very rough neighborhoods and heard the word "nigger" at least ten times before boarding my train. Don't tell me the guys calling each other "nigger" or "nigga" would use "slave" in the same context to address their buddies.

Also, Tom Sawyer, reflects the ideas and beliefs of white Midwest America at the time. The book is a detailed snapshot of the attitudes and fears 20 years after the Civil War. And yes, many were outright racists against blacks and indigenous people. Will changing "Injun Joe" to "Indian Joe" change the dark, evil, and animalistic images Twain paints of the Native American villain?


Reading both of these Twain classics can serve high schoolers in many ways. A teacher can teach about "local color," tall-tales and hyperbole, irony, stereotypes, and racism. There are valuable lessons to be taught with Twain's works. Censorship of the racial slurs, put in its historical context, does no justice to our young people.

As an Asian-American, should I be freaking out about reading a piece of fiction about World War II where the soldiers refer to the enemy as "Japs" or a German pissed of about an American GI calling the enemy a "Kraut?"

Can you imagine To Kill a Mockingbird with a racist character calling Tom Robinson a "slave" (which historically makes no sense) or an "African American" in spewing his hatred? Stupid. During the Depression in the South, many people called black people "nigger." It's how it was, and exposing our kids to our historical injustices displayed in literature does not glorify racism, but gives our kids the knowledge to understand our American past. And you know what they say about learning about your past...

What NewSouth is doing is plain historical and literary censorship.


cube said...

The teachers should preface the reading of the uncensored book with a discussion of the language of the time when the book was written. I don't think Twain himself would be happy with the censorship either.

Anonymous said...

While I haven't gone out of my way to fuss about it, I agree wholly with you on this. Even without running the tangent about slipping down the potential slippery slope into linguistic fascism, this is simply intellectual dishonesty. (And it's telling that Twain's books have been banned in the first place; that's another level of idiocy.)

I also find it deeply hypocritical that some of the same concerned educators will rabidly defend explicit sexual, violent or profane content (if we're fussing about language, there's a lot of swearing going on that nobody seems to care about), but strain at the gnat of Twain's historically accurate language.

Mr. Shife said...

It gives them teaching moments but now it will be lost as they are making it more politically correct. You are so right about how it is a snapshot of an era and that it is important for people to understand and learn from the past. Very disturbing that they are changing stuff like this.

J. Noel said...

Political correctness has its place, as trying not to offend anybody is by itself a respectable thing to do.

But people have to put it in proper context. If we're getting a sample of life from the late 1800s, then it should include the bad along with the goood.

By getting topics like racism out in the open - creating a true dialog with high schoolers, I think we could do a really good thing.

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