A brilliant and offensive book

January 19, 2011

My generation--the tail-end of X, or early Millennials--grew up in a time of soft racism and racial inequality; we were also brought up to be tolerant and "color blind." Like most of my peers, I wouldn't be caught dead using the n-word (despite being a bit of a profanity connoisseur). I was taught that it's the most abhorrent of epithets--although I also grew up exposed to hip-hop artists and comedians who use the word with what seems like impunity.

The n-word issue has come up recently with the decision by NewSouth Books to release a new edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The 1884 Mark Twain novel has a long history of controversy and censorship, much of it involving its record 219 uses of the despised word. This new edition does away with the n-word word entirely: hoping to reach a broader audience and stave off controversy, the editors replaced it each time with the word "slave."

Everyone seems to have an opinion about this. Many think the new edition whitewashes the past. But editor Alan Gribben spoke compellingly to Publishers Weekly about his decision. Doing Huck Finn readings across Mississippi in 2009, Gribben encountered numerous teachers and other readers who lamented the barrier the n-word creates to teaching and enjoying this wonderful American novel.

Twain prefaces the book with a note about its many dialects, lest readers "suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding." The n-word appears often because it was natural for a wide variety of white characters to use it; by writing in all these different voices, Twain demonstrates how pervasive dehumanizing language about African Americans was in the pre-Civil War South. Huck's own use of the word only makes his journey--up the river, into adolescence, toward freedom and understanding--more momentous and compelling.

But Huck's voice is not Twain's--and not everybody gets this. I know teachers who echo Gribben's concerns. Whenever my sister, who's taught at several high schools with mostly nonwhite students, assigns a book focused on race issues (whether it's Twain or Sherman Alexie), she struggles with the fact that teenagers aren't used to distinguishing between narrators and authors. She's been called "racist" more than once. She cries each time.

Preachers know the difficulty of using texts with violent imagery or troubling language. I was reading the story of Jael's assassination of Sisera in church recently, and my eyes went immediately to the nine-year-old in the second pew. I edit Martin Luther King Jr.'s writings when I read them in worship--despite the feelings of foreboding and hubris this creates--because I can't bring myself to say the word "negro" from the pulpit and risk validating it for others.

The current book-club staple The Help tells of African-American women who work as domestics in the 1960s. In her review of the book, Sandhya Jha notes that though it's intended to be uplifting and mildly subversive and includes little offensive language, The Help still rubs many people the wrong way.

Twain wrote a brilliant novel that manages to be satire and epic and coming-of-age story all at once--and that uses the n-word 219 times. Michael Chabon highlights how painful and complicated it is to navigate the book; his essay challenges all parents to engage their children in conversation.

I wish these discussions were taking place in classrooms and churches. I wish it were easier for Christians to talk about satire and truth, our troubling histories and human brokenness, our enduring need for grace to change us. I wish we could read the Bible with the critical voracity--with passion and deep inquiry, the awareness of what is hurtful and what is transcendent--that some have brought to the debate over Huck Finn.


Language use

How about the increasing acceptability of the f-word across the board from everyday speech to various literature? A word that refers to a person as the equivalent of a sexual act is destructive and demeaning - or has our culture become too calloused to realize it?

PC language of charised literature.

People, get a gripe, it is a book, it is a history of the time from when it was written. Shall we not now go forth & rewrite Shakesphere so every man can fully comprehend what was written in the Kings english! I think not, you would lose the nuance & written timbre.
What needs to be done before the book is assigned reading is an explanation about it, let it be a "choice", not a mandate. What an insult to Mark Twain, what an insult to the ability of comprehension of the reader. If there is fear that reading it will assualt & damage the psyche of said reader. What of those that read the Bible. It has been tempered over & over. We know for a fact that the Bible intrepretations have cause more harm then the musings of Mark Twain literature.

Naming the horrors

I think Mark Twain would be the first to say that his use of the n-word in Huckleberry Finn, besides bring historically accurate, depicts one way in which blacks were dehumanized. I don't believe anyone can come away from reading this novel without seeing that he abhorred this. If we don't name the horrors in our culture, how can we repudiate them? To say, "Get behind me, Satan!", we must name Satan.

Weary of Stereotypes

During the late 80's, while teaching at a Dedham, Massachusett's prep school, I dropped Twain's books from the student reading list. Nostalgia for the ethics and conduct of people engaged in the institutions of post-civil war slavery have no place in the classroom. This form of romanized illusion could only enslave the minds and hearts of another generation with values and morals that dehumanized Twain's protagonist and prepetuated negative stereotypes. The view that his novels are "coming-of-age" stories is a gross misunderstanding of what it means to achieve maturity. Neither Huck nor Jim achieves manhood in these novels. Such stubbornly unyielding images from the past keep us from living into the potential of the divine dignity possessed by every human being.

Re: reading lists

As a teacher, it's absolutely your prerogative to choose the books you wish to teach in your classroom. Bowdlerizing the work itself is something entirely different.

Teachable Moments

That which has the power to be uncomfortable or offensive has the power to teach. We can't pretend history didn't happen, and we can use uncomfortable moments to teach about where we've been, where we are and where we should be headed. It's uncomfortable for me to discuss the Gabrielle Giffords assassination attempt because one of my high school friends died from a gunshot wound to the head, but it still needs to be talked about. Pretending it didn't happen won't get us any further down the road to redemption and healing. The concept of narrative voice is one that can be taught, and just because it is difficult doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. Censorship for the sake of expedience is never the answer.