The Town Scryer is a mixed bag of humor, socio-political observations and ephemera from the perspective of a eclectic Pagan veteran of the counter-culture.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On Huck Finn and "The N Word"

     New South Books is coming out with a new edition of Samuel Clemons classic, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". What makes this item newsworthy is that in this edition all of the racial slurs have been replaced. For example the offending "N word" has been replaced with "slave". A lot of people will be talking about this for the next few days. Most of them will rush to judgment and few will give the matter the nuanced exploration it deserves. I am going to try.

   Of course a lot of people will once again complain about "Political Correctness". The people who complain the loudest about "Political Correctness" always remind me of older versions of the kids who used to make fun of the girl with the brace on her leg. I suspect they miss those days. I firmly believe in a persons right to be called what they want to be called. That's really what so called "political correctness" is about. Good manners...or, to put it more simply, not being an asshole. The majority of my friends are Witches. Many of them prefer to be called "Wiccans". They chose this because twenty years of Hammer Films have given people a rather unrealistic idea of what Witchcraft is and a totally erroneous idea of who they worship. Makes sense to me.

    A few years ago my old friend Jason went to Thailand for sexual reassignment surgery. S(he) now prefers that I call her "Janessa". If she is willing to fly half-way around the world and undergo expensive and painful surgery to make her body fit her self image, the least I can do is call her what she wishes to be called.

    In spite of all of these things, I am opposed to mucking about with the work of a great writer, or any other kind of writer for that matter. Let me explain why.

    First of all, as a semi-professional writer I am opposed to censorship on principle. I put a lot of thought into the words I choose.  Most of the greatest works of literature have been banned somewhere at some time. It is my fondest desire to publish a book and be banned somewhere, preferably Texas. When Gore Vidal's "Myra Breckenridge" was ruled obscene he replaced all of the offending words with the names of Supreme Court Justices. I think it is a great pity this practice didn't catch on.

     In particular I am opposed to historical revisionism. Sanitizing the brutality of our past is a very bad idea. Santayana was correct when he said that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.  How can we ever find a clear path to what we wish to become if we persist in lying to ourselves about who we were?

     Finally, there is the feeble excuse of protecting the children. Bull. When I was bedridden for a few weeks as a child my grandmother read to me. The book she chose was, "To Kill a Mockingbird". It was new at the time. She read it as it was written. She left in "the N word", although if that work ever passed my lips my doom was sealed!  She even left in the part about the charge of rape and attempted to give an explanation that a nine year-old would accept for what that crime was without having to explain sexuality. It didn't scar me as a child. I grew up wanting very much to be Atticus Finch when I became a man. I still do.

     In the course of my fifty-odd years we have come from segregated drinking fountains in some states through the marches and the murders of too many good men to this place at last. We want to get it right, or at least most of us do. We get that a lot of good people were the victims of America and that we owe them some simple courtesy at the very least. Now even web sites that will cheerfully say "F**k" won't use "the N word". I suspect that may be due in part to the fear of being flagged by filtering software, but it leads to an amusing thought. Rule #34 of the internet says that if you can imagine it, porn exists of it. Somewhere a bunch of old peckerwoods in white sheets who can't get it up any other way are probably paying a hooker to say all the old racial slurs.

                          Be seeing you


  1. A couple of years ago, I got a copy of "Lair of the White Worm" that I found had been "sanitized." Sort of. It had been butchered. The 'N' word was replaced by other terms (African being the most popular), but only when the 'good guys' said it. When it was the bad guys, the 'N' word remained.

    That said, Samuel Clemens used the word he did not to depict a slave. He did it to point out emphatically the fact that white people do not see black people as being human. He was pointing out how we dehumanized a portion of the population. I think that still stands. I think that we don't need to censor this book -- or any other. We need to teach it as it is and for what it is. Of course, that would be more work, and people these days are all about how little they have to do to get by.

  2. Interesting that you should post this. I've been thinking about this a lot recently (You might have seen my post that I read Tom Sawyer last weekend.) I'm now reading Huck Finn.

    I realized I'd never read either of these books as a young person. I then realized that it was the late sixties when I was at the right age and people were beginning to understand the impact of racist and sexist language.

    I was part of a GATE program in 6th grade. They pulled us out of regular class to introduce us to great books...most of them Caldecott and Newberry Award winners. Neither of my folks read books and I'll fell in love with language and reading. It was a wonderful gift to me.

    We never read Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn with the class.

    We did do something else though. Every other week the GATE program spent the time traching us about Black History. I learned who Frederick Douglas, Sojourner Truth, Harriett Tubman, Langston Hughes, and lots of other great people were and their contributions. I've got to say, I think the school made the right choice in having the Black History class. And that small thing (and probably not small for it's time) made a big difference in who I became.

    In reading these books recently, I've been thinking about that solution of taking out the n word and other racist language. They hardly seem appropriate given what we've learned since Clemens' time.

    On the other hand, introducing the material as is and having an opportunity to talk about and challenge the racism it came out of is a "learning moment" as they say. Still, it will often be read without that much needed conversation.

    I feel very unsettled about it, but maybe we have to hope that children (as it will mostly be children who read it) will have the critical thinking necessary to question the usage of the n word and its inherent racism.

    And, if we start censoring books there it is a dangerous and slippery slope to other things. A Forward talking about the racist language in the book in a way that young people would understand would be a better solution I think.