Thursday, January 06, 2011

Twain, the N-word and all that kerfuffle.

There is something of a kerfuffle going on over an edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. As I hope you know, the novel is set in pre-Civil War America and Huck’s friend, Jim is a slave. The novel uses dialects and language common to the era and the place. And that means a rather offensive word, nigger, is used.

With the book in public domain a publisher released an edition of the book where this word was removed. And that got the Right wing in a tizzy—though to be fair that is a perpetual state for them. Howls of “political correctness” were heard and the move was denounced.

I think much of the outrage was misplaced, some of it was just dumb, and some of it was, perhaps, motivated by people who actually like the N word. Others are people who want the “pure” novel to shine through. There is a range of reasons that people are upset. My view is that all of them should just calm down a bit.

First, the man behind the book, Alan Gribben, is NOT motivated by political correctness. Before people should start screaming about him being PC they ought to check out the facts. I know the Right doesn’t believe in innocent until proven guilty, but a little fact checking is a good thing.

While Gribben was not motivated by PC, the matter does arise. Gribben is a Twain scholar and fan. He is a professor of literature and wrote a biography of Twain and his wife, as well as other works about Twain and his writings. Gribben teaches in Alabama and during a speaking tour on Twain numerous teachers came to him and lamented how Huckleberry Finn had been removed from the classroom. Yes, schools removed the book because people found the N word offensive.

Now, let us consider many of the Right-wing critics of this move, who are crying “censorship.” First, give me a break, you dumb-ass hypocrites! You people have been burning books, sometimes authors, for centuries and now you howl! These are the same sorts of people who demand the removal of all sorts of literature. They don’t only want to clean out the schools, but public libraries, and even private libraries. They march around demanding prosecutions for “obscenity” and lead entire movements pushing censorship. This is not to say that the Left is any better. Both sides want government restrictions on speech, just not their speech!

We also need to define censorship, as the word is used too loosely. Censorship is the coercive prevention of the expression of an idea by an individual using their own resources, or resources made freely available to them. If I don’t use the N word, it is my choice, not censorship. If I use force to prevent you from using it, it is censorship. Nor is it censorship when this publisher does this. The publisher is not coercively preventing you from buying a different edition of the book, with all the language intact.

The publisher is NOT censoring the book. She is editing it. Like it or not, this editing is not coercive. Censorship always violates the rights of someone. This publication violates the rights of no one. And, we often edit literature when we present it to children.

Gribben wanted to see more kids reading Twain. The publisher, Suzanne La Rosa, said she was aware the edition would be provocative but “We were very persuaded by Dr. Gribben’s point of view of what he called the amount of ‘preemptive censorship’ going on at the school level It pained him personally to see… the way that Twain’s novels were being de-listed from curricula across the nation. It became difficult for teachers to engage in discussion about the text when the kids were so uncomfortable with the n-word.”

In other words, Gribben’s edition was an attempt to get the book back into classrooms for kids to read. He was responding to censorship that already existed and trying to rescue as much of Twain as he could. Gribben’s own introduction to the book explains:

Far more controversial than this reuniting of Twain’s boy books will be the editor’s decision to eliminate two racial slurs that have increasingly formed a barrier to these works for teachers, students, and general readers. The editor thus hopes to introduce both books to a wider readership than they can currently enjoy. Twain, it should be remembered, was endeavoring to accurately depict the prevailing social attitudes along the Mississippi River Valley during the 1840s by repeatedly employing in both novels a linguistic corruption of “Negro” in reference to African American slaves, and by tagging the villain in Tom Sawyer with a deprecating racial label for Native Americans. Although Twain’s adult narrator of Tom Sawyer is himself careful to use the then-respectful terms “colored” and “negro” in Chapter 1, the boys refer to slaves four times with the pejorative n-word. In Twain’s later book, Huckleberry Finn, these barely educated boys and the uneducated adult characters in Missouri and Arkansas casually toss about this same racial insult a total of 218 times (with the novel’s table of contents adding another instance)

The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language. As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact. Even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative. In the 1870s and 1880s, of course, Twain scarcely had to concern himself about the feelings of African American or Native American readers. These population groups were too occupied with trying, in the one case, to recover from the degradation of slavery and the institution of Jim Crow segregation policies, and, in the other case, to survive the onslaught of settlers and buffalo-hunters who had decimated their ways of life, than to bother about objectionable vocabulary choices in two popular books.

Gribben says that a “succession of firsthand experiences” lead him to conclude, “an epithet-free edition of Twain’s books is necessary today.”

Certainly neither Gribben nor the publisher deserve the attacks they are enduring. They are simply trying to get kids to read the book. And since Gribben has written a clear introduction saying he removed the word, students will rather easily be able to re-insert it if they wish. Gribben replace “nigger” with “slave” and any reader knowing this would be able to reconstruct the novel. But teachers wishing to read passages in class would no longer have to face the drama that will inevitably result from the use of a very offensive word.

I don’t know how I’d feel were I a black man who had experience racial slurs over a lifetime. I am not in that position. But I suspect I would be deeply troubled every time I heard the word. When Twain wrote his novel the word was in common usage. Thankfully that is no longer the case. It was a term meant to dehumanize a class of people. It reflects the legal status of African-Americans at the time. These were people held in bondage and the use of such demeaning words was a tool of that bondage. That victims of racism, and others, are sensitive to that fact today is NOT a bad thing, quite the contrary in fact.

If I were teaching a class on Twain I would find this word troubling. I would want the students to understand the context of Twain’s novel but neither would I want to inflict unnecessary pain on black students. The incentives would be to avoid Twain entirely. And that was what Gribben realized was happening, something he wanted to stop. And, I should note, that this problem exists whether the school is politically controlled or privately controlled.

There are few epithets as riddled with hate as “nigger,” very few. Even other offensive terms for blacks don’t carry the same baggage. Terms of derision used for Jews, Italians, Mexicans, etc., just don’t seem to have as much vitriol behind them. The only such word that I can think of, which is in this category, is perhaps, “faggot.” And, while gay people have been oppressed by American culture, their experiences are quantitatively different. Sodomy laws were awful but never nearly as pervasively enforced and destructive as slavery, segregation and racism. And it was always possible for most people to hide the fact that they were gay, hiding that one is black is a very different thing.

This is something my fellow Americans seem to never fully realize. I find it easy to view life as a white man. But I have lived in Africa where I was the racial minority. So I know something of what it feels like to be black in America, but only a vague something. Nothing in my life comes sufficiently close to the black experience. I have lived in countries where I couldn’t speak the language. So I know something of what it is like to an immigrant.

To the degree that “political correctness” means that people are voluntarily refraining from saying things that are hurtful to others, then I’m all for it. To the extent that law mandates it, I’m against it. I would like to live in a world where the N-word has lost its power; where kids are not taunted as “faggots” and then go home and kill themselves; where everyone is horrified when someone is derided because of their race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Ideally students should be able to understand that Twain’s use of the N-word was within a cultural/time context. But we don’t live in an ideal word. We still live in a world where the Klan exists, where the N-word is thrown about with the INTENT of inflicting pain, where racism still rears its very ugly head. It is hard for us to hear these offensive words without relating them to our own experiences.

I do not condemn Mr. Gribben or the publisher for this edition. I understand why they felt it was needed. I understand why many people are offended when they read the N-word in literature. And I understand why others want to preserve the book. I certainly understand the dilemma for teachers. That’s the problem with this controversy. Everyone has valid points. So, let a thousand flowers bloom. There may be places and times when the original edition of the book can be used, let it be used. And there may be places and times when the original would not be used; in that case I rather see this new edition used, than it not be used at all. And, all things considered, I would rather live in a world where hateful words are criticized and vigorously debated than in one where their usage is common and acceptable.

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