Huckleberry Finn in 2011

The year is 2011 and America is still grappling with the issue of race. The election of Barack Obama, two years ago, was a historical event that shook the sleeping beast of racial tension. Now, in 2011, that beast is being riled again by the decision to publish a new edition of  Huckleberry Finn without its “offensive” words.

Professor Alan Gribbon of Auburn University is the man behind the decision. He states that without the change, people simply won’t read the book.  By people he is referring to the teachers and college professors who shy away from assigning text. And he is right. There have been cases where parents have  sued to have the book removed from reading lists. Teachers, already overburdened with budget cuts, larger classes and fewer resources, should not be blamed from shying away from anything that would add to the stress of their job.  But I believe there is a solution.

The offensive word is, as everybody knows, nigger. This is my favorite line from the book : 

 “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger.”

I guess the line could work with “slave” inserted instead of  “nigger,”  but I believe the bigger question is: Does it have to? Isn’t America old enough to be able to read this wonderful story, in the context in which it is supposed to be read, without anyone becoming offended or put-off? The key word in my question is “context.”

When I was getting my teacher’s credential, we learned a little concept called “front loading.” Basically what this means is that before we presented the main content, whether it be fractions or a new story, to our students, we had to make sure they had enough prior knowledge, or context, on the subject. Front loading makes sure the students are prepared to receive the information.  For example, before reading “The Old Man and the Sea,” my students learned about the island of Cuba, marlin fishing, what a skiff looks like and more. When they finally began to actually read the story, I was sure they had enough context so that the deeper meanings or themes of the book could come through.

Of course deconstructing a skiff is nothing compared to deconstructing the word nigger, but is it a challenge we  should shy away from? Can that word even be deconstructed to a point where it is not offensive?

Yes! 

I would like to suggest that anyone concerned about this read Toni Morrison’s book, Playing in the Dark; Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1990). This nonfiction text was the subject of my master thesis. I used her academic “map,” to deconstruct the use of the word “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn, and another story, “The Artificial Nigger,” by Flannery O’Connor. Another great writer who has, I feared, been shifted to the margins in a misguided effort to not offend.

Below is the first section of my critical paper. In it I write about my own experience with forced censorship in Huckleberry Finn, my reactions to it, and how it really needn’t be that way.   

***

During my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to reread Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The class was American Literature; 1895 to the Present. During our discussions of the novel, the instructor would often call on students to read certain passages aloud. Before this happened, he informed us that he found the “N-word” offensive and that whenever we came to it in the text, we were to substitute it for the more acceptable, non-offensive, “African American.” No one disagreed, and we all dutifully followed his directions. Passages such as: “I liked the nigger for that; I tell you, gentlemen, a nigger like that is worth a thousand dollars . . .” read like this: “I liked the African American for that; I tell you, gentlemen, an African American like that is worth a thousand dollars” (Twain 402). As I sat there listening to this new offensive-less version of Huck Finn, I definitely felt that something had been lost in this politically correct translation. I sat there racking my brains trying to formulate an objection or at the very least, a sophisticated question that would cause the professor to change his mind.  

At the time I thought that this change was unnecessary and, well, silly. I am sure the intent to not offend was the genesis for the mandate, and for that I give him credit. No one would disagree that “nigger” is a politically charged word and just the mention of it, in whatever context, had the very real potential of veering the class into a discussion of racism, bigotry and the horrors of slavery. As Kennedy states in his essay “Who Can Say ‘Nigger?,’” “Nigger is the all-American trump card, the nuclear bomb of racial epithets” (86). By changing Jim from a “nigger” to an “African American,” my instructor was doing his best to avoid turning his classroom into another Hiroshima.  

Speaking as an African American, I wasn’t offended because I understood it to be the vernacular of the time, and more importantly, I knew Mark Twain was not referring to me. I believe what the instructor failed to do was understand or consider what the usage of the term signified or represented in Huck’s world. The emphasis should have been on that, not whether 21st century readers found the word “offensive.” Changing Jim from a “nigger” to an “African American” reduced his persona to someone who just happened to be non-white and catapulted him into the politically correct 21st Century. But Jim wasn’t an “African American.” Not to Huck, the Widow Douglas, Tom or any of the other characters, and certainly not to Mark Twain.

 The class discussion continued with Huck, and “African American Jim” sailing down the Mississippi River with the vital and deeper meanings in the text sailing not too far behind them, and then me, silently exiting the classroom, not knowing how to verbalize my concerns or questions over this new form of censorship. Three years later, I would happily find an answer in Toni Morrison’s, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. In this nonfiction text, Morrison successfully, albeit inadvertently, tackles what professors, literary critics and readers have struggled with for centuries: how to interpret, deal with and deconstruct the “niggers” that appeared on the pages of early American literature. Morrison skillfully lays down new and wider boundaries in which to study, deconstruct and interpret these characters in early American Literature.

Unlike others, her “target of attack is not the obvious one of racist stereotypes and language” (Fishkin 629). Her text does not address who should or should not say “nigger,” or even whether one should be offended by it. Instead, Morrison “tackles” the deeper, often ignored discussion of the relevancy, portrayal and symbolism the black characters or “niggers” in literature written by and for white Americans, and her “map” sets forth the guidelines and boundaries of exploration into this area that has been largely ignored, glossed over, or censored by critics and academics.

Like Playing in the Dark, this essay is not about offensive language or censorship. That topic has been beaten to death and new adventures await the literary students, teachers and critics just over the horizon of offensiveness. In this essay, I will show how Morrison uses her map to deconstruct Twain’s usage of “the nigger Jim,” showing it not to be a racist or offensive text, but a truly revealing text that shines the light more on Huck’s whiteness and less on Jim’s blackness. I will then use the same critique or lens to deconstruct another icon of American Literature: Flannery O’Connor. I believe Miss O’Connor has been a victim of the same fate that has censored Mark Twain. To counter this, I will use the parameters of Playing to show how O’Connor’s strategic use of the word “nigger” should be neither censured, nor dismissed as mere racism. By using the literary lens set forth in Playing, analyses that are both startling and revealing rise to the surface, shedding new light on novels and stories that have been the mainstay of college literature.

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4 thoughts on “Huckleberry Finn in 2011

  1. Excellent hypothesis, Ms. Kannel and suberb writing.

    I applaud the decision to remove the n-word from “Huck Finn” (and while we are cutting, let’s take a razor to Joseph Conrad and some rap/hip hop songs, too).

    Why? I am a rabid fan of books on CDs. However, when I tried to listen to the audio edition of “Huck Finn”, where the n-word is not censored, but SPOKEN with frequency, it was definitely a huge, unnecessay distraction. I eventually just stopped listening. I understand Mark Twain is a extraordinary wordsmith who had good intentions with Huck, but hearing the n-word over and over again was a huge turn-off which took me right out of the story and into wondering if Twain was really a major racist.

    For an example of how the n-word should be treated, let’s examine “kike”- a slur for Jewish people.
    Those who are the target of the k-word take the position it should not be used at any time for any reason. There is no rationalizing or theorizing about when and how it is okay to say “kike”; it is rarely used in text and certainly not in popular music. “Yo, my kike…” would never happen. Why are black Americans supposed to be the people to tolerate a slur? Or is a slur not a slur when spoken and written by someone famous? I recall a time “comedian” Bill Maher, said the n-word on “Larry King Live” to explain how the “birthers” really view President Obama. Larry King did not correct Maher, nor when the show was replayed, was the word bleeped. Did Maher get a pass because he is a so-called “progressive” who reportedly dates black women? Ditto Roger Ebert.
    The excuse “black people use the word, so why can’t everyone else” does not hold water either. All black Americans do not use that word, and those who do should be admonished.
    Perhaps one day the n-word will become a verbal relic. But in the meantime, we should discourage its use in all forms. Even when from the pen of a master.

    • Thanks for you comment. I would not call Twain a racist. In fact, I believe he was quite enlightened for his time, but I can understand how hearing the word, over and over can be a turn-off. I never read the term as an insult or racist slur, against Jim or me for that matter, mostly because I viewed it as as description of class, not race. In the end, who are the real “niggers” in the book? Not Jim.
      I encourage you to read T. Morrison’s book. In it, she praises Twain for his bold writing and states; ” . . . it is absolutely necessary for the term nigger to be inextricable from Huck’s deliberations about who and what he himself is–or more precisely, is not.” (page 55)

  2. Sheesh,

    When I heard of the publication and release of this so-called “New South” version of “Huckleberry Finn,” I laughed. How absurd! But after I stopped laughing, I found myself getting really annoyed.

    What the hell is wrong with people trying to re-write one of our country’s most important novels? Either read it or don’t, but for god’s sake leave the damn book alone. Covering up the word “nigger” with “slave” is a sneaky, underhanded attempt to wipe clean our nation’s sullied past. If use of the word “nigger” makes people squeamish, then good. It’s an ugly word and by rights it should. But attempting to deny or minimize the epithet’s ugliness or existence in literature and historical documents (“Huckleberry Finn” is, in a sense, both) is just plain silly. Besides, in 2010, who is this censorship benefitting? Who is it sheltering? And who does it serve?

    Through good, honest teaching and healthy discussion, students, readers, and society at large will come to realize the foolish ideology the word “nigger” was intended to reinforce when it was (and still is) used by Whites and against Blacks: that Blacks are innately inferior to Whites. But, hey, I’m just a cracker English major–what the hell do I know?

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