New ‘Huckleberry Finn’ Censors ‘N-Word’

An Alabama publisher says it’s trying to get Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn back into classrooms by dropping instances of the N-word from the text.

That word occurs more than 200 times in the novel and is being replaced with the word slave.

The book’s editor, himself a Twain scholar, says he was becoming more and more uncomfortable any time he found himself reading portions of the text aloud, claiming that the impact of the insult the word carries seems to grow decade after decade.

I’ve seen on one website a debate over whether it’s a case of censorship.

I laughed at the argument. Of course it’s censorship!

The debate should be based on whether it’s the right thing to do.

Even on television, the N-word is being quietly removed from reruns of older television shows in which the word appeared. In most of those cases — surely in almost every single case — the word was used by a black person about a black person.

In the series, Sanford & Son, for example, a scene with LaWanda Page’s Aunt Esther character has her asking a friend, “What did you say, Sucker?” At least, that’s what she says in syndicated rebroadcasts of the program. Originally,sucker was the N-word. It has now been removed without any explanation or mention at all.

It’s one thing to remove a potentially-offensive word from a TV show without making any mention of it.

But when you start doctoring one of literature’s most famous novels, I think it’s important that there be discussion about what is being changed and why the change is being made.

If teachers are going to take the time to point out the significance of the change, and turn it into, pardon the expression, a “teachable moment” about race, then the change seems justifiable to me. But if they’re going to just sweep it under the rug, as if it had never been there, then they’re missing an opportunity for an important discussion about race relations.

Let the kids just read something else.

The biggest irony in this story is Twain’s feeling on civil rights. He was an outspoken critic on racism in America:

“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.”

And Huckleberry Finn is itself a satire about long-held attitudes at the time. Racism is one of the book’s targets.

To remove the opportunity for students to learn from Twain’s satire, and ignore that such a racist word existed in it, does a disservice to one of America’s most popular novels.


  1. "Let the kids just read something else." you said. Such as? While the current darling of the pre-teens and Emos galore is the Twilight series (as evidenced by the People's Choice Awards the other night), the writing is so abysmal as to be gag-worthy. Neil Gaiman's "Pretties" series deal with otherness issues, but not specifically racism. "Black Like Me" may be suitable for high schoolers, but if the USA is truly serious about eliminating racism (a highly suspect endeavor, however laudable by the liberals of today), hiding from the reality of past attitudes and actions is hardly a step on the road to success, now is it? The time to get them is when they are young and impressionable. They are so much easier to indoctrinate.'Lost teaching opportunity' is a valid reason to cite when suggesting that no one should censor ["the N-word"] from Samuel Clemons' second most famous work (1° being The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, also rife with racial and cultural slurs, if'n I recalls correctly, Massa Patrick). The use of the offensive word SHOULD, in my opinion, make modern readers skin crawl. We must not backslide into forgetting just how bad things were in the post-civil war, Jim Crow & "carpetbagger" South (and North) that resulted from the attitudes evinced in the antebellum South which Clemons/Twain wrote about. Removing a highly offensive word is not the way to go about correcting the crimes of the past, however. Rubbing our collective noses in our own feces is, in my not so humble opinion."Authors’ original texts should be sacrosanct intellectual property, whether a book is a classic or not. Tampering with a writer’s words underscores both editors’ extraordinary hubris and a cavalier attitude embraced by more and more people in this day of mash-ups, sampling and digital books — the attitude that all texts are fungible, that readers are entitled to alter as they please, that the very idea of authorship is old-fashioned." Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, Book Supplement, January 6, 2011.I agree with Michiko's sentiments. He said it so much better than I can; "hubris" and "cavalier", indeed. My father was a born Yankee, raised in Maine and educated in public schools and university. He was a racist and a bigot and was very willing to let you know about it. My mother, although born in the USA, was culturally a Canadian, and decidedly not a racist. This made for interesting times in our household, let me tell you. The "N-word" was frequently vocalized within my hearing, although I was forbidden from using it by the maternal paddle-wielder. I grew up to be a economic and political conservative, socially moderate and a typically suburban white racist (as did most white men in my generation). I am not overtly bigoted, I support the concept of equal opportunity without forced quotas. [ side note: I am probably as uncomfortable as those of my father's generation with the idea of mixed marriages. It goes back to a basic human tendency to classify all peoples as 'Us vs. Them'. The difference is, I wouldn't greet my daughter's date at the door with a "F— off, N—–" and a shotgun because he's of African-American descent. I used to greet ALL potential suitors that way, substituting "Asshole" for "N—–".] The point is, I didn't grow up to be a rabid racist, despite my father's bias. I grew up to reflect the cultural norm of my generation. As was the must likely outcome. Changing of attitudes take time, often a lot of time. Wishing it otherwise is futile. Bowdlerizing one of the great American novels is futile and wrong-headed. Expecting our children and grandchildren to fail to learn from our past mistakes is not. It is a culturally sound method of changing opinion over the course of time. So, I agree with your conclusion. Let's leave the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn alone and concentrate our efforts on trying to get along as humans. Political correctness and racially charged language prohibitions may make some liberals sleep better at night, but it doesn't change how I am addressed out on the street. By whites or blacks.P.S. My son is married to a foreigner, born and raised in the Philippines. My father would have considered her a "n—–". I just think she is a beautiful woman and excellent mother.P.P.S. How's Scotty doing?

    1. No one can possibly read into my post even the slightest inference that I'm suggesting that the average novel that passes for literature in 2011 is in any way superior to Twain. I know of no one — other than, perhaps, a fan of the stuff you mentioned — who'd possibly feel that way.

      I agree with you as well that when it comes to such culturally-important literature, it should be left alone. When it is, I cannot honestly believe that the discussion of racism depicted there isn't discussed in the classroom. For some reason, Huckleberry Finn was not a book I was required to read for a literature class when I was in school, but I can't imagine that the subject wouldn't have been discussed if that had been a class-wide selection.

      My bigger concern, since it appears that whether the censoring should happen is now a moot point, is that the discussion still take place. It's one thing to sanitize racist language from a text — even one designed to specifically satire and criticize the mindset that allows such language to leave our lips. But once the sanitization has already happened, it's even worse to ignore the fact that change has occurred and the reason that some people felt it was the right thing to do.

      Thus, today's classrooms should either deal with what Twain was writing and writing about or let the kids read something else. If there's nothing else as good, then deal with the issue, don't pretend that it was never there.

      By the way, Scotty's great…getting ready for his first birthday next week! He's wasting no time growing into adulthood.

      1. My apologies, I didn't intend to even suggest you'd consider "Twilight" as anything more than the wretched dreck that it is. Also, sorry for rambling on like I did this AM. Insomnia and cold meds not a good mix for me, it seems. Mea culpa.

        Glad Scotty is doing great. Hope you are, too.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.