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.
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.