Pop Culture, Race & Politics

Slaves, Ni**as, Huck and Jim

"Hey Jim, you know you my n*gga, right?"

(Please forgive my late pass on talking about this since apparently it was all the rage to talk weeks ago according to Liz.)

Recently, 60 Minutes did a piece on the decision by a small publishing company in Montgomery, Alabama, NewSouth Books, that decided to replace the word “nigger” in the American classic, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the word “slave”. And while I understand the logic behind doing so, I think it’s both a cop out and ultimately does a great disservice to both Mark Twain and history.

But let’s backtrack a bit.

Huck Finn might be one the most divisive books in the American educational system, if not the most divisive. Some schools ban the book because of the language and use of the dreaded n-word, while others teach it from a distance being very careful to talk about the use of the word while never actually saying it out loud. Hell, I went to a high school that refused to teach the book. Which I always found odd considering that, well, I went to a high school where race relations fell apart after the OJ verdict and a sizable percentage of the white folks wore the confederate flag as a sign of things to (hopefully) come.


Let’s be real, if a white person were to use that term, most of us would be ready to resort to violence. The word still has power. It always will. No matter how we try to pretend that it doesn’t, or how often we (including myself) use it as a term of endearment or listen to songs by A Tribe Called Quest that make no sense whatsoever but are called “Sucka Nigga,” the word will remain revered and controversial. Nothing new there. White folks know this and Black folks know this.

With that, I understand the logic behind wanting to remove the word from a book that is largely not taught because of it. In the 60 Minutes segment, the publisher who removed the word said that it still allows for the teachable moment to exist, but I think that’s wrong. A University of Oregon professor, David Bradely, basically spoke my thoughts when he said that removing the word deprives students of the teachable moment.

“You use the term ‘teachable moment’ and that’s what n*&^%$ gives you.  That’s why it’s important to keep it in there,” says the author and Mark Twain scholar.  “I call “Huckleberry Finn” a power tool when it comes to education,” says Bradley.  “There are so many things [in it] that pry things open…That teachable moment is when that word hits the table in a classroom. Everybody goes ‘wooh’ Okay, let’s talk about it.”

“It’s not ‘Huckleberry Finn” anymore,’” counters Bradley.   “What are we teaching them [by removing the N-word]? This may be their first encounter with slavery.”  He says that to withhold the N-word is to avoid an integral reality. “‘Slave’ is a condition…nothing for anybody to be ashamed of,” says Bradley, “But n*&^%$ has to do with shame…calling somebody something.  N*&^%$ is what made slavery possible.”

To me, one of the biggest problems with race relations in this country is that white people try to pretend that slavery and racism either never existed or are a figment of imaginations. Mind you I’m not blaming everything on white people when it comes to shattered race relations. Black folks think everything’s racist and that can’t exactly help the convo either. It’s impossible to have the conversation necessary when both sides come in completely defensive so that nobody listens.

The removal of this word is proof positive of more “white guilt” or to me an attempt to rewrite history. The n-word is a word that historically was used during the time setting of the book. You can’t just rewrite history to make it more palatable to the masses. That’s that BS the state of Virginia tried to do with their textbooks that insinuated that slaves fought patriotically alongside their white counterparts to preserve their quality of life. History – good, bad, or ugly – is just that, history. It’s what has gotten us to the points we are today…again for good, bad, or ugly.

Plus, I think the way that most people end up engaged in necessary and progressive conversations is via other people’s word and discussion starters. Like Professor Bradley says, when that word is said, in an academic setting, it requires discussion and evaluation, etc. Why even attempt to deprive that potential. Again, I get where the NewSouth Books Publishers are coming from, and in some ways, I think their logic is genuine but misguided. Interesting though isn’t it, that the use of the “word” slave would make something benign, and yet in this case it does.

I feel like Professor Bradely, removing “nigger” removes the potential to fully delve into what the word represents historically and how it’s impacted our nation to today. It doesn’t force the conversation. And like with anything, how can you move past something if you can’t even talk about it.

I’m curious though. What do you think about this publisher’s removal of the n-word and replacing it with “slave”? Does it matter? Is it a good idea or a bad idea?

Where do you stand?

What’s the 411, son?



Filed Under:
Panama Jackson

Panama Jackson is pretty fly for a light guy. He used to ship his frito to Tito in the District, but shipping prices increased so he moved there to save money. When he's not saving humanity with his words or making music with his mouth, you can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking her fine liquors. Most importantly, he believes the children are our future.


The Great Name Drop

  • http://iamyourpeople.com/ I Am Your People

    No one said it better that Larry Wilmore on The Daily Show – “Jim ran away from being a slave, he couldn’t run away from being a n*gger”

  • IsOurChildrenLearning?

    I say remove it. Do you give middle school kids books with other vulgar terms? Nope, it’s offensive. You can get a point across without using the N word. Slavery, Jim crow, segregation, and the generalized atrocities that black folks faced in this country go way beyond a slur. We don’t need to have a kid say “Nigger” while reading aloud in class in order to get him to understand that we had it rough.
    Race relations are bad in America, as they are everywhere. The only difference is the degree of supposed tolerance. The inclusion or omission of a terrible word in an old tale will not improve or worsen how well we get along.

  • http://Fatgrlatheart.com Fatgrlatheart

    Not sure that I agree that white people think racism and slavery never existed.

    Agree that publishers’ logic was probably genuine but misguided.

    I read alot of coming of age stories set in the south in junior high … And the word nigger was in each one. It’s a part of the reality and it needed to be included in those stories for me to start to picture as young girl what living in those times was like.

  • miss t-lee

    Did you catch the white dude saying that the civil rights movement freed the white folks as well? I was side-eying my tv so hard. I wasn’t a fan of the book, we muddled through that ish in 8th grade and still couldn’t tell you what it was about. I think I blocked it out or something. LOL I don’t agree with the fact that they want to change someone’s original work into something else that they want it to be.

  • stlunatic

    The kids. . need. . .to KNOW.

    There, there Cicely Tyson. Give me my computer back and stop ringing that damn big ass bell. I swear fo God, if you weren’t Jesus’ bff . . .

  • Myseducation

    I’m going with the teachable-moment-has-been-lost perspective. I think it goes for ‘both’ (knowing there are more than two, but for simplicity’s sake) races. White folk need to be able to confront the reality of a playing field that has never quite been even and black folk need to recognize the significance of the opportunities we have the luxury to take for granted.

  • http://lifeofalibra.wordpress.com L Boogie

    Like you said in your post, I think that taking the word out of it deprives the work of its true intended form. It was a sign of the times back then, and it does serve as a teaching point for young people. Shoot, by the time a lot of kids now hit 13, n****r probably isn’t the worst word in their vocabulary — it’s still important that they understand the context of the word used in those times, and why it has the ramifications and effect that it does today. As you said, it starts the conversation…one we’ve had for a very long time, and one that won’t go away for generations to come…

  • http://ThinkPrettySmart.typepad.com Ms. Smart

    Removing it allows people to avoid the uncomfortableness that STILL come along with anyone in mixed company when its read. I wonder if white people exclude it when they sing rap songs. Do they skip over the word in mixed company? Buy the radio edits of songs. *thinks back to hanging with white friends* I don’t remember them playing rap but I know they like it.

  • Anechoic

    When I was in high school (Catholic school, overwhelmingly white), there was a huge controversy because the teacher in my honors English class wanted the class to read Huck Finn and one of the students (backed by his parents) did not want the book taught in the class. I remember the teacher storming into class and writing “CENSORSHIP” on the black board and explaining her views.

    I supported her. Mark Twain was regarded as a classic American author, Huck Finn was regarded as a classic American novel, it was only a bunch of words on paper, and we were old enough and mature enough to handle whatever the book could throw at us. Let us read the book.

    Eventually the teacher and the student were able to come to an accommodation (I don’t remember the specifics, and we began to read the book.

    A couple of chapters in, I regretted wanting to read the book. Again, people talk about Huck Finn as a classic. The only thing I remember about it is nigger Jim. I don’t remember the plot,, the themes, the local color, anything else but having to read a book about niggers so I could get a good grade. Remember the Malcolm X quote about “what do you call a black man with a PhD?” That’s pretty much what I kept thinking as a read the book.

    Huck Finn was the last Twain book I’ve ever read, and I have no desire to ever read anything else he wrote. (yes, I know he was a abolitionist, doesn’t change anything). If reading the full, uncensored version of the book was supposed to make be appreciate him as an author, it failed. As for reminding me about the history of the word and the treatment of blacks, well frankly there are plenty of cops and other folks around today who do that just as well as Twain could.

    If I had the choice to read a “sanitized” version of Huck Finn (knowing that it was sanitized of course), I likely would have been able to focus on all the good that other folks find in the work, so I am perfectly okay with giving people the choice. More power to you if you can let the word roll of your shoulders, but it ruined (what is supposed to be) a perfectly good book for me.

    YMMV. I suspect I am in the minority

  • DQ

    Gimme a second Panama. I’m typing a response. I’m about to go in.

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