Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Word that shall not be Named

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.


  1. I spent three years teaching history. As far as I'm concerned, this is just one example of a larger problem: we are trying to sugarcoat the historical ugliness that is very much a part of American History. It's why people object to Black History Month; it's why people have argued to have the Holocaust removed from the curriculum. You are right; the word you speak of and "slave" hold entirely different definitions. The word is disgusting, but it is necessary to teach an era correctly.

  2. It's awkward to read a book with that word in it in a racially diverse class. I've done it (I have a blog post about it somewhere...). But somehow, we seemed to get through it.

    It's a tricky situation. I understand the intent behind reworking HF. I don't think it's right. I know that around here, books that have that word in it are read in various English classes. I have to assume that the teacher spends time explaining the context and all. The students don't seem to be too bothered by it when I'm in class with them.

  3. Thoughtful post, JE. I'd like to hear the viewpoint of a person with color. Somehow, I think using slave for the N-word is PC gone too far, far worse than substituting him or her for the generic he, but a crime of the same genus.

  4. I've often asked the opinion of blacks that have read the book as I have always been interested since reading it in HS - a member of the class was of African decent - His opinion and the opinion of every black man or woman who has read the book was and is - it is contextual, it is historic - that is how people spoke then - et cetera... Removing the word is white washing history - which I know there are a lot of people who would wish to do so but it shall not prevail, we may not like our collective past - but it is there so maybe we should, I don't know, learn from it or something.

  5. I agree so much. I was so annoyed to hear this. It was written in. Leave it in. It's simple. EVERYONE knows it's there and if it offends you, don't read the novel. Simple again! Ugh...I don't think people have the right to censor things like that. I could ramble forever but you said it best I think.

  6. History is often ugly. To sweep it under the rug, we are doomed to repeat. Seems that is the case lately with other groups of people who are being demonized.

  7. Paul: My thoughts exactly. It happened. It was bad. We have to own up to it or we're no better.

    Liz: It didn't bother my class when we read it, either, because the teacher took the time to explain about the word's significance and why it was such an ugly word.

    Gale: Removing the word, offensive though it is, is going too far. People have to learn why using the word is bad, otherwise they'll think it's just no big deal.

    Jhon: Agreed. Why are we trying to hide from what happened? I know we're ashamed, but are we so cowardly we, as a country, can't show what happened for what it was?

    Colene: I'm both bothered by the censorship and the hiding from history. And you're right about how easy it is just to not read what offends you. Just as long as you don't expect everyone else not to read it to avoid offending you, too!

    M Pax: Good point. I wonder what book will be banned in a hundred years for being insensitive when it's telling it like it is.


Please validate me.