The N word is a bad word. It’s insulting. It’s degrading. If you’re not listening to a rapper (check that, black
rapper), there is no excuse for hearing it. I would never condone its use and I would never use it myself (and, I have not). But when it comes to a book written to be historically accurate, a book where it's very use is part of the meaning...
I know I can’t understand how a black person feels when they hear that word, but I’ve been called names, including a specific one intended to demean women, so I do know what it feels like to be wronged via word. I don’t like it. It makes me angry just thinking about it. But I’m sorry, taking it out of Huckleberry Finn is wrong.
Replacing it with “slave” is not the same. True, it’s a word you don’t call black people even in jest (i.e. oh, he lost a bet so now he’s my slave for the day—you don’t say this of your friends of African descent), but it does not equal the N word in either emotional strength or disparagement. But, damn it, the book is about racism! And ignorance! It can’t be about that without having racists and ignorant people! And sometimes those people use the N word. Huck did, not because he doesn’t like Jim, but because he is ignorant of the word’s true significance, something that still resonates today.
Perhaps the most significant argument against removing the word is that, while it is used freely and cruelly, that is not the author’s intention. Samuel Clemens was not a racist in the least—in fact, he was a proponent of civil rights. If he wanted to be racist, he could have drummed up the literary Birth of a Nation because that’s “how people thought at the time.” But he wasn’t that type of guy. If you want a racist, read some of H.P. Lovecraft’s work. Now that’s racism.
Reprinting it without that word is a mistake, a grave one. Because in it we are agreeing that art cannot be offensive for the sake of making a point. Because in it we are saying our children should not be made aware of the difference.
How frightening. How sad.