Nigger please? “Censuring” Mark Twain.

Via on Jan 5, 2011

“I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’ ” he said. “And I don’t think I’m alone.” ~ Auburn University English professor Alan Gribben

Publishers Weekly reported recently that an upcoming edition of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” will omit certain language, like the n-word, (which it will replace with the word slave) because it is not relevant for these times and causes discomfort in readers.

Oh indeed, nigger is a powerful and emotional word. It is a word birthed from pain, horror and dispirit. It was the word uttered through gritted teeth when ounces of flesh were flayed off the backs of slaves in the South. “Nigger” was no doubt on the tongues of every slave ship that sailed the seas. Nigger was mouthed off camera as African American students had the audacity to walk into schools with whites. I expect a graduate student of literature to understand that.…

“Nigger” was birthed of pain and struggle, of violence and hate. It represents the suffering of a people and the guilt of another. Neither should be ignored.

It should make us feel uncomfortable when we hear it – But how to best address that discomfort? Should we ignore it and let it linger in limbo while publishers ease our young into the world of violence and oppression that we exist in?

“Don’t worry dear. People don’t think that way anymore…in fact they never did. Everything is just fine. When your friends use it in conversation, just ignore it…it will be fine.”

Or should it be addressed directly through those that have a respect for language and how it can (and will) invoke a powerful response? My professor of African American literature was a small, bespectacled ex-Black Panther. Skinny and unassuming in a tweed suit he had me stand in front of my class one day and recite a piece of work (I don’t recall what book…maybe “The Invisible Man” but I do remember his reaction as I fumbled through the reading because “nigger” was pretty prevalent.)

Me: “blah blah mumble mumble …
Professor: “Can you speak up? What was that word?” He leaned forward to hear…
Me: “eh…it was the n-word.”
Professor: “Sorry.  Speak up.  Say the word again?” He sat back and looked me in the eye.
Me: “Nigger.”
Professor: “Dammit, Pappas! Speak up! Say it. Say it!
Me: “Nigger!

In an almost Sam Kinison–esque display he had me practically yelling the n-word to the class. This class: white, black, Asian, men and women looked like they just got slapped in the face – they looked away in discomfort. I was hurting myself from the release. Almost in tears from just the emotions that were invoked (shame at what the word represents as well as anger for being forced to face it directly.)

There is a power in that word. It isn’t used lightly and shouldn’t be; it also shouldn’t be ignored. What it represents needs to be addressed and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn is perhaps the first time an adolescent hears it in its natural context – hatred and racism that still permeates our culture. It traveled across the sea. It rode through the civil war. It was screamed during the civil rights movement and it needs to be addressed in classrooms today. In Huck Finn, Mark Twain not only presents racism to the reader, he bludgeons him with it. Mentioned over 200 times, it could be considered overkill. It makes you squirm but good literature is not supposed to make you feel comfortable – good literature challenges you just as good rock n’ roll is always a little bit dangerous.

Elon James White from Salon is correct when he states:

The idea that the book would be used if it didn’t contain the word “nigger” is preposterous. The book, which deals directly with racism, is not better served by erasing the racial slur. The only purpose is to ease the tension that is felt by parents and teachers of students who would read it. To pretend this is for some higher good is to insult the intelligence of the American public. America is a society in which our ugly history is not so far gone as to allow for cold, detached analysis. Because of the mistreatment of everyone who wasn’t/isn’t white, straight and male, America is constantly defending itself instead of dealing head-on with the wrongs that it willingly played a role in.

The Mark Twain House weighed in.

Although we admire Dr. Alan Gribben’s scholarship and share his desire to have the books be widely accessible in schools, we encourage readers to experience Mark Twain’s original text whenever possible. Our education department actively works with schools across the country to contextualize the troubling race relations and use of the ‘n’-word during Twain’s lifetime. We invite teachers to contact us if they would like assistance on how to integrate the text into their curriculum in a socially and historically responsible way. We invite the public to visit our current Yours Truly, Huck Finn exhibition to explore why the novel has endured for over 125 years and the house where Twain lived while he created this masterpiece.

We don’t burn books anymore in America but we are willing to completely white-wash history books and classic literature when we feel nervous. We may as well rename the Japanese Internment during World War II into “Happy Puppy Daisy Land” or start referring to the KKK as a “Unique Social Club.” Which is more insulting to us – the fact that the word nigger appears 200+ times in Huck Finn or the fact that publishers are able and willing to completely white-wash 200+ years of slavery, bigotry, torment and pain? Even the word “Injun” is replaced with “Indian” to temper the blow yet those same readers probably sport a “Redskins” or “Braves” sports jersey.

Erasing nigger from Huck Finn does not erase the terrors that occurred in this country but it makes us more willing to ignore it and repeat it in the future.

Ignorance ain’t bliss and Mark Twain knew what he was doing. In his own words:

“I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote ‘Tom Sawyer’ & ‘Huck Finn’ for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeased bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again on this side of the grave.”

I don’t have the eloquence of Mark Twain and I sure as hell don’t have his ability for wit and sarcasm but if you want diluted and processed version of American Classics then go pick up a subscription to the “Great Illustrated Classics” catalog – you won’t be bothered with deep content and you get a picture on every other page. I loved them when I was 6.

For some additional comments on this check out this post on Racialicious.

About John Pappas

John Pappas is a struggling Zen practitioner with a slight Vajrayana palate (but he won't admit it) stumbling between the relative and absolute through the Buddhist Purgatory otherwise known as the Great Plains of South Dakota. Emerging writer, librarian and aspiring hungry ghost, John spews his skewed perception of the dharma all over his personal blog, Subtle Dharma Mouth Punch as well as on the ephemeral Elephant Journal and occasionally (while having no artistic ability to speak of) on Dharma/Arte. John also loves tacos, homebrew, yoginis and obscure Cthulhu references. You can follow him on twitter under the handle @zendustzendirt

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34 Responses to “Nigger please? “Censuring” Mark Twain.”

  1. Tangled Macrame says:

    That pretty much sums it up, John.

  2. Wonderful, insightful article, John. As a Literature Major myself, I'm deeply troubled by the whole idea of sanitizing great works of art.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  3. YH says:

    Buddy it’s censor not censure. And most books of Twain’s era were published with copious illustration. And you want people to pay to read this? Yogi please.

    • Jack Daw says:

      Censure
      – disapproval: severe criticism
      – official condemnation: official expression of disapproval or condemnation, e.g. of a legislator by the legislature
      – criticize somebody or something: to make a formal, often public statement of disapproval of somebody or something

      I am going for the second in those definitions as I don't see this as censorship since this is basically stopping Twain from making the point he intended to make. It doesn't really silence him, just makes a contradictory statement as to the intent of the book.

      I would recommend checking out one of the Great Illustrated Classics to get my reference to the illustrations…or don't. I don't really care one way or the other.

      I am not a yogi. Nor do I pretend to be. But you read it so joke is on you, I suppose.

  4. drumbeato says:

    ‎"I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse". – Mark Twain

    I ask you. Does this sound like a Racist?

  5. Scott Robinson YesuDas says:

    Hear, hear; well spoken, John. I think you've nailed it–this isn't about making the world more just or humane or even literate; it's about making it easier for those in charge, and *that* deserves censure.

    This has been going on for a while. When I was in Miinnesota in the late 90s, there was a big celebration of Scott Fitzgerald's centenary, including a bunch of public readings, one of which also caused a big stir by expurgating the "n-word." I guess we had no idea back then how far all this would go.

  6. Lee Kottner says:

    Preach it. As an English professor, I'm appalled by this bowdlerization. If you don't have the courage or wherewithal as a credentialed educator (a Ph.D., for Pete's sake!) to tackle controversy in literature, you do not belong in the classroom. That's your freakin' job, dude. Preach it, Mr. Pappas.

    • Thank you Lee. I was an undergraduate Englidh Lit major with a strong interest in early Amercian writers. So Twain is obviously a personal favorite. And any attempt to change his work brings a bit of ire to the surface.

  7. Joe Mohr says:

    Great article, John! Mark Twain is untouchable! All literature should be. Controversy or opinion should not result in post-print editing to keep everyone happy.
    I hope cannibals aren't offended by the overuse of the term in Moby Dick–in reference to Queequeg.
    That was a joke–but for waht it's worth, Great Illustrated Classics refers to Queequeg as "the stranger"…

    • Ah! Great Illustrated Classics…what every writer should wish to be. Dumbed down and coated in illustrations. And granted I lived off of Illustrated Classics as a child and it opened many doors but that is it. The originals need to be taught as originals.

  8. Benjamin Riggs BenRiggs says:

    I agree…. The word is not there by mistake. It is meant to conjure up the feelings that invite people to want to remove it. No doubt censoring Twain is misguided, but the feelings that inspired censorship are the very feelings Twain was going for!

  9. elephantjournal says:

    From http://www.facebook.com/elephantjournal

    #
    Nancy Sikora
    The writer says, "… if you want diluted and processed version of American Classics then go pick up a subscription to the “Great Illustrated Classics” catalog – you won’t be bothered with deep content and you get a picture on every other p…age." Exactly!

    Leave Mark Twain's books alone. If they make you uncomfortable… well, that's what they're supposed to do. If you don't like that, then don't read them.

    #
    Jill A Basinger Tow Perfectly said. I'll hasten to add that those who find fit to casually replace the word "nigger" with "slave" are in their own class of Niggerdom: subhuman, oppressive, proudly uneducated. That, of which, should have never been applied to the oppressed African slaves.

    #
    Nancy Sikora
    There's one thing that confuses me, though. The author of the article quotes Mark Twain as saying,"“I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote ‘Tom Sawyer’ & ‘Huck Finn’ for adults exclusively, & it always distressed me when I find tha…t boys and girls have been allowed access to them. " However, in the old (1946) version of Tom Sawyer that I have, there is a preface by the author that includes, "Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account…"

    Strange.

    #
    Jill A Basinger Tow Excellent, Nancy!

    #
    Brad Scheel
    so now what are we going to do, take Fuck out of Catcher in the Rye?

    duh…IT'S SUPPOSE TO PROVOKE THOUGHT.

    If this Twatwaffle wants to change things so much…let him write his own damn book. What's he really saying is: "No Niggers allowed" …?
    #
    Carol Anne Knapp I could have done without even the title of the article thanks but no thanks……..I am now thinking of 'unliking' elephant journal…

    #
    Lori Thornton Allen
    As someone white with three years of grad work in primarily African American History, this troubles me greatly. As I work with my now 11 year old who has been raised in a very liberal church (UU) and private school, the hardest part is put…ting things like MLK's dream speach in context. She has an intellectual understanding of what racism is. But she has NO emotional context in which to place historical events (Dream Speech, etc.) because she has never existed in that environment. This review is dead on – we must stop dumbing down "education" and we must confront the rampant racism that still exist by educating current and future generations about the past.
    #
    Carol Anne Knapp the only thought this provokes is ignorance….I don't get mad often, but I don't expect to scroll down my fb page and see that word…pissed….not your best work Nancy…
    4 hours ago · LikeUnlike ·
    #
    Carol Anne Knapp Tom Sawyer was important in its time, it is time we have perspective on our times…still pissed….

  10. elephantjournal says:

    #
    Jack Daw
    ‎@Jill ~ I agree except on the "uneducated" part. The movement to remove nigger from the books seems to be spearheaded by educated folks, however don't underestimate a publisher that sees an opening for a market.

    Thanks for your comment, Cheers!

    #
    Jack Daw
    ‎@Nancy ~ The quote is an example, I think, of Twain's amazing wit. He basically states that if you want to remove his book from the eyes of children then you need to remove the Bible as well. Twain was an ornery one!

    Much love for your comment, Cheers!See More

    #
    Jack Daw
    ‎@Carol ~ Sorry to have offended you. That word is a powerful one and it makes us look past this illusion we create for ourselves. Attempts at white-washing history are prevalent and we strive to ignore rather than rectify. I wrote the a…rticle so don't blame Nancy.

    We do have perspectives based on our times. Our times rewrites history. We gloss over the Native American genocide, briefly mention Japanese interment camps and place more emphasis on states rights rather than division of slavery during the civil war. We venerate the peaceful aspects of the civil rights movement but utterly ignore the violence and anger that was present. We provide students with an utterly white-washed education. The removal of n*gger only furthers that cause.

    Thanks much for your comment, Cheers.

    ps. sorry to offend but racism is ignored now more than ever. You should be pissed. I'm pissed too. Imagine the shock an middle school student has when they read that word 200+ and learn its actual implications and not just what is bantered about on a school yard or among friends. It drives the point of racism down – hard. It is what Twain was good at.See More

    #
    Jack Daw ‎@Brad ~ Twatwaffle is my favorite word of the day. I plan on using it twice in polite conversation.

    #
    Lee Kottner Could not agree more with, Lori. As an English professor, I'm appalled by this bowdlerization. If you don't have the courage or wherewithal as a credentialed educator (a Ph.D., for Pete's sake!) to tackle controversy in literature, you do not belong in the classroom. That's your freakin' job, dude. Literature is part of our history and whitewashing it like this does a disservice to all of us.

    #
    Dana Huskey
    I find in interesting that in modern America the idea of being politically correct in one's speech actually prevents passionate exchange in conversation that prevents exploring "tabu" words and topics. Without the open exploration of these… topics, there is no way to move beyond them, heal past wounds, or create understanding. We've become a society that would prefer to hide the truth rather than confront it head on, and it is serving to create a dumbing down of the people rather than challenging people to to recognize and stand for their own beliefs. By taking the 'n-word' (funny that it can't even be said in this intelligent conversation) out of Huck Finn, it prevents the emotional reaction that could create empathy and understanding for those who have suffered through and been damaged by racism. Kids are exposed to such vast amounts of violence via media, video games, etc. that I can't imagine that exposing them to an accurate depiction of history would do more harm.

  11. Juliana says:

    From an article in the New York Times called: "Does One Word Change Huckleberry Finn? What Would Frederick Douglass Say?": "Political correctness is bad tutelage, validating thin skins and selective inquiries. The more students read sanitized materials in high school, the more they enter college inclined to dispel things they don’t want to hear."
    http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/01/05/d

    At least very interesting and worthwhile discussions are emerging from all this.

  12. Colin Wiseman Colin Wiseman says:

    I hate the word. I can’t even say it. But I was watching the BBC news this morning and the author Candace Allen said plainly in front of the whole of Britain:

    “I can say [that word] but you aren’t. That is one of the rules.”

    Am sorry but it doesn’t matter who or what you are, using that word on a breakfast morning show in any context should not be allowed. Kids could be watching!! Would she use the F-word live on tv? Bet not.

    However I respect literature and it shouldn’t be removed. It waters down the intent of the context – how it was meant to be vile and degrading, and the people that used it were dumb hicks.

    • To use it flippantly (as I may have done in the title, I admit) is as bad, in my opinion, as removing it completely from our collective lexicon. There is no proprietary right to this word. It represents shame of the oppressor and the pain of the oppressed.

      Cheers,
      John

    • Hey colin! It seems my reply to you was lost. Hmm..I will try to sum up.

      To use the term flippantly is just as bad as to erase or ignore it. There is no proprietary right over it. It represents the shame of the oppressor as well as the pain and anger of the oppressed.

      Cheers,
      John

  13. jdk says:

    I love literature precisely because it does not water down the reality of human nature in all her glory and disgust in ways we are not "allowed" to express in our good citizen social arena. I'm going to buy a copy of Huck Finn just in case it does get rewritten. I want my kids to have access to the real deal. Shielding our loved ones does not promote awareness and right behavior but open and frank discussion and education in factual historical context does.

  14. JemalKnows says:

    I love this article. I think it artfully conveys the tenor of the book while walking us through the progression of its message in today's world. Simply put, Huckleberry Finn is an great example of how creativity and true art can be used to educate us all in a timeless manner. As an African-American, while the words were hard to hear when I read the book; I was okay with it because I understood AND accepted the context of the literature. Many people lose sight of things because there isn't a natural acceptance of messages offered; especially when "acceptance" doesn't mesh well with how they feel about themselves or the situation. As an African-American man who's completely comfortable with myself; I can accept Twain's messages, move forward and even display my discomfort for anyone wanting to alter Twain's creative license for MY comfort. A change today speaks to individual insecurites and desires and takes away from the collective education we all need.

    Great article,
    JemalKnows

  15. Resa says:

    Thank you, I love it.. Thank you for saying what so many can’t.

  16. Wendy says:

    lol. I did a paper on pejoratives once. Eventually they do lose their power and fade away. I've never quite understood why we have to remember things so long. Some things are best forgotten. It's like picking a scab, the wound can't heal if we keep picking at it. Wanting a better future does not mean dismissing the suffering of the past, it means accepting the happiness of tomorrow. There's also something to be said for faking it until you make it. If we really want racist or other pejoratives erased from our vocabulary, then you got to get out the eraser. I've never known anyone in my family for 4 generations to use the word so sometimes I wonder why we still talk like it still has that meaning and is still as relevant today. I feel like I'm looking at a fossil really. Let the word die, I say.

    I'm an English major myself. I don't think it should be changed but I don't think it should be taught either. If it's not good the way it is, then teach something else. Pejoratives are interesting though, they have a great deal of social power. This controversy is wonderful for addressing that.

    • Greg says:

      "I'm an English major myself. I don't think it should be changed but I don't think it should be taught either. If it's not good the way it is, then teach something else."

      Obviously you don't appreciate Classical Literature (or understand its purpose); or understand Mark Twain's place in it, especially with the works like Huckleberry Finn… sad. What is your English degree even for? Grammar?

  17. Nathan Smith Nathan says:

    A tour de force, John. Lighthearted seriousness.

  18. Thank you and I agree that it is a horrible word that links to horrible things. But both horible words and horrible things need to be addressed and literature is the perfect place to do it and Twain did it like no other.

    I don't use the term as a pejorative or insult or as a description but we have to face the fact that the actions of many white europeans and americans led to its use. Twain knew it and didn't avoid its use in his books, which was something that was controversal in *his* time as much as it is now!

    the quote from Twain that I included was from when the Brooklyn Public Library was considering a ban on the books due to their "coarseness, deceitfulness and mischievous practices." Not much has changed. Schools still ban it and now we are willing to completely white-wash the book to make it more "palatable" to discriminating white school-board members.

    Thanks for the comment and Cheers!

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