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.

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  • Missy

    *I posted this elsewhere, but here are my thoughts*

    I too don’t believe in changing the authors original words. It’s a ridiculous ideal. I had too had to read this lit in HS along with other “great American classics” such has ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’… these are the books that helped make me HATE my English classes.

    Being bored to tears helped me completely forget the “purpose” of reading those novels.

    If there are teachers that don’t want their students to read the novel because of the N-word then they need to move on to other lit. These novels have not affected my life in any way and yet I am doing well

    However, what has always been offensive to me the ideal that “we” Americans absolutely need to understand White racism and psychology through the eyes of Whites from the past

    What about Black lit? Are the people who actually lived the worst American experiences not worth reading about? Are their opinions on early century American race relations of lesser importance to the their White counterparts?

    What about Slave narratives?

    I never read ANYTHING in HS pertaining to the African American experience (but I sure read about the Jewish Holocaust). It was as if my school was purposely ignoring the history of Blacks (even though I went to a mixed HS)

    I’m not gonna pretend to speak for all Blacks because I know that some really enjoy these classics… all the more reason that they should be read in College. Also, I think the average College mind could better comprehend the context of these books and feel less awkwardness hearing the “n-word” being read

    • Shauna

      I understand your argument; we definitely need more black literature (and Asian, Hispanic, African, etc.). Hopefully, this will change sooner rather than later, and we should be pressing for that change. I had a great English teacher who exposed us to all kinds of writers, and I’m hoping that more and more high school students are having this kind of experience.

  • cherbear

    I’m all for changing the word. Why does the word nigger need to appear 219 times in the book? At most it should appear once or twice.

    White people aren’t stupid. They know about slavery. Hell they know more about slavery than I do at times. I understand that they don’t have as deep a relationship with the word nigger like most black people. But the kicker is that most black people don’t even have a relationship with the word. Which begs me to wonder why it is still in these books.

    I grew up in a 95% white small city and I cringed everytime the word nigger came up in books. It was completely unnecessary. Even the white kids thought the word or book should be replaced with something less offensive. And eventually they were replaced.

    The memory of slavery shouldn’t be tied to one word. People will continue to learn their roots and history. I was lucky in a sense because my school encouraged ethnic literature in the cirriculum.

    Ditch the word or ditch the book all together. I don’t really consider these books to be “classics”. There is are more interesting reads elsewhere that will teach students history and diversity.

    :)

    • Tiffany W.

      Altering the book somewhat dumbs down the message Twain’s attempting to convey. The word ‘nigger’ is suppose to make you uncomfortable. Each ‘nigger’, every 219 of them should be like a dagger to show you that the treatment of Jim was wrong. Nigger was apart of his name, wasn’t it? Nigger Jim? That’s deep. It takes a responsible teacher to break down the actual meaning of why this word is evil and why we shouldn’t use it today. Simply avoiding it altogether does nothing for education.

      And to Jo, I highly disagree from omitting books like this and “To Kill a Mockingbird” from the HS cannon. 14-17 year olds are certainly mature enough to comprehend the meaning in these books. I also am for including more diverse American literature too (African-American, American Women, Native American, Latino American, Asian American, etc.) But books like those are products of their time. And that is a great way to teach authentic history too.

      We must remember that this is just one publisher censoring the book. You can get the original translation elsewhere.

  • jamesfrmphilly

    classic? who says this mess is a classic? drop the book from the list.

    • Jo

      Those books like “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn” should be banned from all HS. The students are not matured enough to handle the shame (if you are Black) or the provocation, or even demeaning railing (if you are another race). Most white teachers (I am a retired teacher who worked in a district that predominately hired white teachers) don’t get it nor addressed the humiliation. Why are these books considered classics anyway? Is it the “white voters” that deem them classics? There are other great novels the students can read that reveal both sides of the race problem, not one side…the white side.

    • Shauna

      I guess people could ask that about the works of Zora Neale Hurston or Toni Morrison, too.

  • I agree with the Shauna and Missy that the book should be left as is. I know that its difficult for us to understand the N-word realistically being used so often and so non-chalantly, but that is exactly how it was used during reconstruction and probably right now in the privacy of some people’s living rooms. The reason that these books are important is because so many schools don’t have an extensive curriculum based on the african american experience and if we are going to have our younger brothers and sisters understand the social structure of today and how it got here, we can go back and pretend like the n-word was simply a synonym for slave when it wasn’t. The word carries so much weight and in each of those 219 times that it appears in that book, is the understanding of how an entire race of people have struggled for decades upon decades for the ever-elusive idea of equality. So, when unaware people talk about why is there an NAACP, why is there a BET or a Black Awareness club, etc, its because we have journied so far and so long our rightful place in American History and this book is part of that journey. And its not just about white people learning the lessons of slavery, its about our people too. Just like Shauna said, how many young black students will miss out on the lessons that this book could have taught them. Books like these also reinforce drive and determination because people went through things that we don’t even have to think about anymore.

    Now, I also think that the teacher has to be prepared to talk about the meaning of the word and how it has evolved over the years. We can’t just have teachers sitting around letting students speak and read these words without context and clarification. And there, I believe, is the rub. This Shauna mentioned in the article, too many of us have sat in classrooms as the voice for all black people in the history of the world. That ‘s far to much pressure for one or two teenagers to accept and then turn around into a lesson. This book needs a strong English teacher who is not only well versed in the book material, but also the surrounding historical events and people of that time.

  • Alexandra

    I agree Missy. I hated reading books like those in English classes.
    School teachers just love reading this type of literature in general. I never read Mark twain, but I did read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in school. That book was ok.
    Those books are seen as classics for particular reasons. It wasn’t till I got to college, I read more about Native and Black American literature.