Like most other black Americans, I’ve experienced the most awkward of classroom experiences: the moment where your blackness becomes the focal point of discussion. It can happen during a history lesson or, more likely, English Lit. The class is reading a book, and there is that word glaring up at you from the text. NIGGER. Or maybe it’s darkie, or coon, or some other evil appellation. Now someone is reading aloud, and you have to hear your teacher or classmate speak the word. These discussions are uncomfortable for everyone, regardless of race, but for non-blacks these discussions are an abstract; for us it is entirely personal. The visceral anger and embarrassment that arise in these situations serve as yet another of the constant reminders of race in the United States.
So I can understand, and even empathize, with the decision by the Alabama-based NewSouth Press to publish a “sanitized” version of Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huck Finn. NewSouth, with help from Twain scholar Alan Gribben, is releasing a version of the controversy-prone book in which every instance of the word “nigger” has been replaced with the word “slave.” 219 cringe-inducing moments edited to be more palatable for modern readers.
“It’s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers,” Gribben explained when discussing why NewSouth felt a need for this revised edition.
As often as I’ve reflexively wished for editions like this as I sat through some awkward moment in a class or book club, producing these whitewashed texts does a disservice to both the author and the reader.
In a preface to the 1885 edition of the book, Twain writes of the dialects and language used by his characters: “The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of familiarity…” Twain is well-known for being very particular about the words he used when writing. His decision to use the word nigger so frequently throughout the book was not an endorsement or rationalization of the ideas behind it; it simply reflected the realities of that time period. Huck Finn was written as a satire of the antebellum society and its attitudes, especially the racist aspects of that society. It is supposed to be uncomfortable for the reader when they see this word constantly used, to see characters who consider themselves good bandy the word about so lightly. This deliberate discomfort is an integral part of the work, and to gloss it over is to weaken the impact of the book. It may remain a great book after this change, but it won’t be great for the reason that it already is: it makes the reader feel something palpable, and then struggle to understand why they feel that way.
This type of political correctness also helps dilute any understanding of how terrible things really were back then. Softening the truth in this manner allows for the type of people who can calmly say that slavery wasn’t that bad. I’m not saying that children in schools need to be exposed to every harsh reality, but we shouldn’t treat them with kid gloves. If the NewSouth Press edition of Huck Finn becomes standard in schools, how many lessons will be lost, for black and white children alike? An alternative to changing the text would be providing teachers with a thorough lesson plan for teaching this work that allows them to convey the complexities of the antebellum south—including a discussion of the word nigger and why Twain used it—without alienating the black children in the class. This is a tall order when there are already so many other problems with the education system in this country, but cowering from a word instead of teaching the class why our society cowers from it does not help our children.
This swapping out an alarming word for a more acceptable one has other ramifications besides the ethical question behind rewriting a classic text. We live in an era where most children couldn’t tell you that slavery ended just one hundred and forty years ago, or what happened during reconstruction, or list the many historical variables that have contributed to poverty in black communities across America. The history books used in schools are already whitewashed, with the ugly truths of our country’s history diluted until they become blurbs that are easily memorized for the next standardized test. Or they’re just factually incorrect. Just last month, the history textbook used in some Virginia school districts was discovered to be full of misinformation, including the assertion that there were thousands of black Confederate soldiers (there weren’t) and “that men in Colonial Virginia routinely wore full suits of armor” (that would have been cool, but they didn’t). The Texas school board, which because of the state’s size influences the type of textbooks available for the entire nation, approved a textbook that has rewritten history with a right-wing twist. Instead of trying to make one of the best examples of literature from that time easier to stomach, we should make sure that the books that are supposed to inform our children of this nation’s history are factually correct and not biased by political leanings.
Yes, nigger is a terrible word to read. It is harsh and painful, especially when it appears in excess of 200 times. I know I hate to see it, especially when reading a work of fiction that is supposed to be enjoyable. But revisionist history already abounds; people don’t want to have to think or feel when they are learning. The type of sanitizing inherent in NewSouth’s version of Huck Finn only leads down the path toward a convenient version of history, where we don’t have to deal with the sins of the past, but we aren’t warned against repeating them either.