Last week, Hanna and I woke up to a story on public radio about a new expurgated edition of Huckleberry Finn in which the word “nigger” is replaced with the word “slave.” (The word “injun” is also being removed, though the stories I’ve read did not say what will take its place.) Since then, a zillion folks on the interwebs have blogged about the story (see below), so I’m a little late in the news cycle here. But I still wanted to weigh in with a few “first impressions” from my perspective as both a librarian and historian … and in light of last week’s post on fundamentalist history. Then I thought I’d open the floor for discussion; I’ll provide a few prompts at the end of the post.
So for those of you who aren’t familiar with the details of what’s happened, Benedicte Page of The Guardian (UK) provides a good overview. Basically, an Alabama-based publisher, NewSouth Books, is publishing an edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain in which they have replaced the word racist slurs with more neutral words. The publisher argues that this change in vocabulary will allow for wider adoption of Twain’s text in school curricula, since Huck Finn has been one of the most consistently-challenged books assigned to students in American classrooms (#14 on the American Library Association’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009). The Twain scholar who edited the new volume, Dr. Alan Gribben of Auburn University (Montgomery, Alabama), chose to make the changes due to his own discomfort in the classroom
Gribben said he had decided on the move because over decades of teaching Twain, and reading sections of the text aloud, he had found himself recoiling from uttering the racial slurs in the words of the young protagonists. “The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups,” he said. “As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact.”
“We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era,” Gribben added, “but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers.” (The Guardian)
Angus Johnston, an historian of student activism and advocate of student organizing for social change has an excellent two-part counterpoint to this perspective on teaching difficult texts and difficult history (see The “N-Word” and White Anti-Racist Pedagogy and The “N-Word” and White Anti-Racist Pedagogy, Part Two). He writes at his blog, Student Activism, that teaching about racism and other forms of social injustice in the classroom — particulary if one happens to be a member of a privileged group (i.e. a white person teaching about racism, a man teaching about sexism, a straight person discussing homophobia) — is both scary and essential.
As a person who teaches American history on the college level, I address the country’s traumatic racial past in my classrooms on a regular basis. And as a white person who teaches American history in classes made up primarily of students of color, I come to such moments with a particular perspective and a particular set of challenges.
You can’t teach American history in any serious way without talking bluntly about lynching, about slavery, about anti-immigrant sentiment, about malign policies toward Native Americans, about the deployment of racism as a tactic of terrorism and a instrument of social control. But for a white professor in a mostly-not-white class, such blunt talk can be not just awkward but perilous.
wtfhellokitty, one of the folks I follow on Tumblr, posted an excellent analysis of the situation titled “White privilege is being able to erase and edit someone else’s record of your wrongdoing and repackaging it as ‘more accessible to a wider audience.’” In it she writes,
[Y]oung readers will have reactions, but they should learn about the whole story of HF. It is not up to them to make final decisions on curriculum. (We should allow them to express their opinions, of course.) This book will not be the first introduction of the N word to most Black kids in the U.S. No need to shield them. Yes to educating them. And it is up to adults, teachers, school admins, parents, and other primary caregivers to educate the kids. Have conversations and discussions about the book, race, and all the messiness that lies in between.
There’s a world of difference hearing the N word said aloud and reading the word on the printed page. I agree that it sounds and feels horrible at book readings and lectures. But it seems vital that the original word remain on the pages in context for all to see. Would Samuel Clemens really adjust his language if speaking to a modern audience? Yes, but he also wouldn’t write HF.
As a person who thinks about questions of censorship, access and history on both a personal and professional basis, my initial reactions to this story are
1. Erasing hurtful words that were already written is categorically not the same as choosing not to use them in the first place. If a teacher or a student or a shop clerk or an elected official used a racial slur in our present-day context when referring to another person, then the speaker should absolutely be challenged concerning their word choice. Today, we widely recognize “nigger” to be a dehumanizing word with intimate connections to America’s history of race-based slave labor and race-based discrimination. No White person, certainly, should use that word in reference to another human being (as a White woman myself, I can’t speak to the politics of re-appropriation here, although I do believe in general that it’s possible to reclaim words — “lesbian”? “queer”? “bitch” anyone? — if you are part of the group against whom the word was used).
However, when we take a text that has already been written and change the language to conform to our present-day understanding of what words are appropriate, we are not being anti-racist. We’re actually supporting the erasure of racism from literature and from history. This is the opposite of anti-racism. This is magical thinking about the past that imagines a history of America where white people we in the present-day believe were not bigoted would not have used language we now understand to be racist. But of course they did. Sometimes, in the case of Mark Twain, it was to capture vernacular speech — but sometimes it was in earnest. Human beings are complicated, flawed individuals and “good” people can still hold extremely prejudiced or blind beliefs. Which is, in part, why people in social justice work talk so incessantly about the concept of privilege. It’s far too simplistic to think of people in clear-cut categories of “racist” and “not-racist,” “good” and “bad.”
As Johnston put it, “If you can’t handle that kind of a discussion, you have no business teaching history in such an environment. Period.”
2. Official censorship is rarely the answer to dealing with stuff we dislike, and selective editing on a personal level isn’t so hot either. I became a librarian in part because I believe in access to information, which helps us develop knowledge and understanding about the world. People across the political spectrum (radical feminists as well as constitutional originalists) have responded to ideas and language and images they find threatening by calling for those offensive things to be made illegal, or removed from public spaces. What NewSouth publishers is doing, assuming they’re making it clear in the printed volume that they have altered the text, is perfectly legal and I don’t think anyone should stop them from doing it. As an historian, the fact that such an altered text appears at all is a type of historically-contextual commentary on how we, as a society, are struggling to deal with the sins of the past. I just happen to think it’s a damn poor way of dealing.
At the same time, I can see future historians and literary scholars of 21st century America drooling over the emerging debate about the existence of this book. It’ll be proposed as a dissertation topic sooner rather than later! So bring it on, I say.
Just please for goodness sake don’t adopt it as a classroom text! (Unless you’ll be reading it alongside the original text.)
With that, I’ll open the floor to Harpylings to discuss. What were your initial thoughts on hearing about Dr. Gribben’s work? If you’ve taught and/or studied Huck Finn in a classroom setting, how was the language and/or racism within the novel dealt with in class? What do you think the existence of this new version says about how we as a culture are dealing (or not dealing) with difficult aspects of our collective past?