(Originally published in The California Aggie)
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the most enduring works by one of America’s most beloved authors, is read and enjoyed by millions of students every year. Yet the legacy of the classic tale is not as idyllic as the great Mississippi River that young rascal Huck and runaway slave Jim call home.
The book contains one particular unsavory element that has been, up until now, more or less accepted.
It starts with an “N.”
A publishing house called NewSouth Books recently released a new edition of Huck Finn that replaces the highly derogatory N-word with the less-inflammatory “slave” (“Injun” has also been changed to “Indian”). Twain expert Alan Gribbens, who spearheaded the new version, cited modern attitudes toward race as the reason for substituting more politically correct language. The 125-year-old book is banned in many schools because teachers and students feel uncomfortable using the N-word.
The new version, Gribbens said in an interview in Publishers Weekly, makes Huck Finn accessible to students and “general readers” who, scared off by the N-word, would not have otherwise read the book.
Gribbens’s efforts are seriously misguided. Sure, it’s true nearly every modern reader probably feels uneasy about the book’s casual and frequent use of one of the worst words you could possibly say. My own dad even stopped reading Huck Finn aloud to me when I was nine years old because he didn’t like saying the N-word.
But doesn’t the old adage go, “If we do not remember history, we are bound to repeat it”? Far worse than saying a derogatory word would be to pretend that the word, and what it meant, never existed. Children who grow up reading a sugar-coated version of history will never fully understand the magnitude of racism in America and will therefore be ill-equipped to overcome it.
Halifu Osumare, associate professor of African American Studies at UC Davis, said removing the N-word prevents students from being able to learn about the realities of Southern life during the Twain era.
“Changing the N-word to ‘slave’ takes away the opportunity to intelligently discuss the construction of racial ideology at the center of slavery, as well as contemporary American society,” she said.
There’s also the question of whether “slave” is even an accurate replacement for the N-word. The two words are not interchangeable – each represents different attitudes toward race, which could lead to radically different interpretations of the text.
“Using one word to replace another is wrong – [for] the history of slavery and the N-word,” said UC Davis English professor Mark Jerng. “They are used for different reasons in the context of reconstructing racial power after the end of slavery.”
UC Davis English professor Hsuan Hsu said he would teach the original, unaltered Huck Finn in his classes, though he pointed out that professors at research institutions may not have the most important say in the matter.
“We should be asking for the opinions of African American readers at all educational levels, [as well as] high school and junior high teachers and community college students and faculty,” Hsu said in an e-mail interview. “The edition is intended to make Twain’s novel more approachable for readers who may not be in a position to comfortably put racial slurs in historical context. So it is those readers whose opinions matter most.”
Young scholars of America, it’s up to us to decide. Can we handle the truth about our country’s past, even when it hurts? I’d like to think that’s exactly what Mr. Twain had in mind.