Warning: Contains Offensive Words.

Most American schoolchildren still read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and if they don’t, it’s because it’s one of the most frequently banned books in the US. If it seems paradoxical that a book could be both its nation’s most frequently banned and its most beloved, remember that Are You There God It’s Me, Margaret also holds that paradoxical trophy!

If you haven’t read either Huck Finn or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – I hate you and get off my blog- Huck and Tom are Central Casting rednecks. The demotic language depends on American vernacular, vulgarity and verisimilitude for comedy. It’s why those books are so popular (WHY THEY ARE “GOOD”). For 120 years, readers have been able to distinguish between a book with racist characters and a racist book; the fact that the novels sympathies are clearly with Huck and runaway slave Jim, and against all the slave-owners (who are also all the white adults in the entire book), doesn’t escape them, nor are they offended by its casual use of the word “nigger” –  the only word that illiterate, backwoods white boys in the 1840s would have known to use to describe a slave.

Welcome to the new America. US editions of  Huckleberry Finn are to be run through a proprietary software program called i-nigger (and its Windows based counterpart injun-for-windows*) that eradicates all uses of the offending term. The deliberately derogatory term rings with irony in all of its 200 usages in Huckleberry Finn – first published in 1884 – and its 1876 precursor, Tom Sawyer. What benign word will be slotted in as it’s replacement? The more innocuous “SLAVE” (think I’d be more upset being called a “slave”: “nigger” is just a label, the other a rather grim state of being). The new edition’s Alabama-based publisher, scarily called “NewSouth Books”, says the cut/copy/replace will have the effect of supplanting “two hurtful epithets” in order to “counter the ‘pre-emptive censorship’ that has caused these important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists worldwide.” Go fuck yourself, Samuel Langhorne Clemens!

Mark Twain with friend John Lewis in a Who Has The More Awesome Hair? contest of 1903.

The weird thing about singling out this one book is the position of black people in America is only one strand of Huckleberry Finn. Read Twain’s “Following the Equator” or “Pudd’nhead Wilson” in which race is the dominating theme and in which he excoriates the “one-drop rule”. “Pudd’nhead Wilson” is a tragic spin on the timeworn Prince and the Pauper tale about two babies switched at birth. The first – fantastically named “Valet de Chambre” –  is one-32nd part black, thus a “nigger”. The second infant, Tom Driscoll, is the master’s son and the heir to the estate. The child brought up as the heir has grown to be a spoiled wretch who behaves abominably towards black people, and turns to murder. The decent child brought up as a “nigger” is at last recognized as the heir, but is cursed by never being able to feel comfortable among white people, because of his learned patterns of speech and mannerisms. See, Mark Twain thought a lot about race. When he co-chaired  – with friend Booker T Washington – the 1906 fundraiser at Carnegie Hall for the Tuskegee Institute, he commented on Washington – whom he had met many times before – yet had not observed him to be of mixed race with blue eyes: “How unobservant a dull person can be. Always, before, he was black, to me, and I had never noticed whether he had eyes at all, or not.” When funding one of Yale Law School’s first African American students, as a sort personal reparation, he said:

“We have ground the manhood out of them [African Americans], and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it.”

The satirical forces in his novels lie in the casual, literally unthinking acceptance of the African American’s dehumanized status, even by Huck himself, whose socially-inherited language, manners and mindset remain rooted despite his friendship with Jim, an ex slave, and the only true father figure he has ever known (Huck’s own father is poor, dumb, drunken white trash by any standard). Because there is satire and irony afoot, the use of the most inflammatory word in the English language needs “handling” by teachers, i.e. needs to be taught. I clearly remember being taught Huck Finn in third grade and everyone “got it”, it was not the least bit confusing or hurtful to anyone in my integrated classroom. Idea: 1.Explain the discursive context. 2. Explain how “irony” works. 3. Open up a discussion on the enormous harm that racist language can do. 4. Explain how some fiction books are historical documents as well as literary documents – how Mark Twain’s humor aches a dark sub current of Antebellum cruelty, and the word “nigger” is totemic since it encodes all of the violence of slavery. You know….TEACH? There are a plethora of teaching guides on the free internet or the free library. Things to remember: 1. This process of word “banishment” is always accompanied by an increase of influence among the populations that have been marginalized through its use in the past. 2. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. 3: Children must learn about attitudes of the past in order to more intelligently accept (or reject) attitudes of the present.

In Toni Morrison’s excellent introduction to the 1996 Oxford edition of the novel, she discusses modern conniptions over the use of the word, dismissing them as ‘a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children’. i.e. letting lazy parents and teachers off the hook. By all means produce bowdlerized editions of classic works of literature for those who are too emotionally immature to read the unexpurgated version. I’m okay with excising the racism from Nancy Drew mysteries – which were written by machines anyway – but cutting Huck Finn’s imbecilic vernacular is like cutting Satan out of Paradise Lost, the incest out of Oedipus Rex’ or the darkness out of Heart of Darkness. Great literature has an enormous and ruthless power to agitate and to rouse, and what a bizarre idea to tweak it based on what we infer from it in the modern age. 75% of  literature written before 1900 will have to be edited by Alabama Scholars for their sexist, racist, homophobic content. Shakespeare, obviously has to be run through the software program. Grimm’s fairytales are unspeakably traumatizing for children so must be sorted out. And the Bible of course, because in the interest of parity, if one fairytale is censored for using words we find offensive, they all must be.

Poor old The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – a really old, ambivalent story about two of America’s foundational preoccupations, individualism and race, and a hero who is able to overcome personal prejudice despite the casual, literally unthinking racism by literally everyone, and despite it not being questioned by literally ANYONE (including ex slave Jim). Poor Huck! Survived all those terrible movies and television series and being played by that kid with the orange afro, and now we capitulate to our lazybones and our unwillingness to explain how stuff isn’t always literal. By removing “nigger”, old Huck’s moral development is no longer the story. It’s now meritless and misleading. It’s not “removing the hurtfulness”, it’s just dumbing it down. Ruining it. Censoring an “offensive” word in a book where its offensiveness – or at least the implications of its frequent deployment and their relationship to the events in the text – is the whole point, is deeply insulting to the very people who find the words offensive in the first place. It places the “word so terrifying it can’t be spoken” above the racism that informs its ‘terror’ in level of importance. It’s infinitely more comfortable to couch people’s squeamishness than it is to confront racism.

Or, maybe it’s all about something else. Maybe it’s part of the Mr. American White Guy’s historical revisionism, the ongoing whitewashing of the institution of slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath. We are approaching the Civil War Sesquicentennial (God help us all), and all those fancy secession balls, slave sale re enactments, the proud putting-on of grey pantsuits/uniforms, pomp of all kinds without thought to the causes and costs. I can see them now, strutting around, puffed-out-chest-style in their greys and rubbing up against the satiny asses of their slutty Belle Ball Gowned womenfolk, “What word? Balderdash! There were never any “niggers”! There were only slaves”!

Eh. I’d rather celebrate the blessed day by rereading the original Huck Finn and roasting up an American Bald Eagle in remembrance.

PS:  if books are going to going to be bowdlerized, target the truly racist books, like Gone with the Wind or the Bobbsey Twins.

*not accurate information

About kara

We know our letters just fine, and we know our numbers to a certain point, but books were always the realm of four-eyed poindexters with bowler hats and cravats. That’s why it pleases us so that America’s proud illiterates are finally stepping up and pushing back against the crushing tide of education that threatens to swallow us all into its gaping maw of checked facts. Champions of the Ignorantiat will not like it here.
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