January 6, 2011

Nigger please? “Censuring” Mark Twain.

“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.

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