(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?
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