Positive Cynicism – Sanitizing history erases history

Aaron Davis

Aaron R. Davis

NewSouth Books finally did it. They finally put out a version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with “the n-word” erased and the word “slave” in its place. They’re referring to it as an edit. I’m referring to it more accurately as censorship.

We all know that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been the source of controversy for decades. I was aware of this in the 1980s, when Jennifer Keaton wasn’t allowed to do her book report on it on an episode of Family Ties. I was actually surprised in 10th grade when my English class read the book. I was glad, too: it is the first great American novel, and an important work of literature. It’s also a damn good read.

But there’s a sort of schism when schools approach this book. On the one hand, it’s an important book that everyone should have read at least once. On the other hand, it features flagrant use of “the n-word,” and that makes people feel bad. And if there’s one thing we all know great works of art do, it’s make people feel good and comfortable all the time.

The people who support censoring great works of art out of compassion don’t get it. They never have. And they don’t understand — or worse, don’t care — that replacing one word with another is to destroy the author’s intent.

Mark Twain wrote and published his novel in the Jim Crow era. Emancipation had already happened, but the regressive racism of Jim Crow laws made it seem in the South as though the slaves had never been freed. Swaths of this country engaged in a system of legislated racism that was purposely designed to put an entire race of people under the heel of another race. Twain’s novel — set in the oft-romanticized (and mostly mythical) antebellum period — was partially about highlighting the monstrous hypocrisy of Jim Crow. “The n-word” is thrown around casually for a reason: to highlight not only Huck’s ignorance, but the downright meanness of a social institution that, in some ways, was created out of revenge.

To replace “the n-word” with the word “slave” is to make Huck smarter and more sensitive than he actually is. It negates part of the point of the novel, which is about how Huck comes to realize the ignorance of racism and understand the shared humanity between himself and Jim, who begins as merely an “n-word” to Huck and ends as a fellow human being. The censorship of the word deforms Twain’s novel, which was meant as a cautionary tale about the post-Reconstruction reversion into the moral depravity of the pre-Civil War South.

That’s why I call this censorship and not the compassionate edit NewSouth Books wants it to be seen as: in their quest to make the book more pleasant to read, they not only remove its power as an educational tool, they mar the point the original author — Mark freaking Twain — is trying to make. So not only do NewSouth Books and so-called Twain scholar Alan Gribben (who did the editing) think they know better than Twain himself how Twain’s books should’ve been written, they very clearly don’t understand what The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is saying. It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetically immature.

That’s one of the things that really kills me about this: watching our country regress further and further into immaturity. You ever watch reruns of The Jeffersons or Sanford and Son or All in the Family or even Barney Miller? You’re going to hear “the n-word” sometimes. And it’s going to be used to make a point. Of course, this was a time when we had sitcoms that weren’t afraid to look at the world as it was and confront it (as opposed to now, when just having a bunch of dick jokes is supposedly a substitute for edgy). They didn’t run in fear from a word. They confronted the power it had accumulated. Today, we’ve given that word so much more power through its false invisibility and the removal of its occurrences in the past that it’s become a dishonesty.

And that’s my biggest problem with this bowdlerized — or, I guess, gribbenized version of Huck Finn: it creates something dishonest about our history. Once again, something “not nice” about our past gets bubble-wrapped and sanitized, and with it another piece of history is erased. How are children supposed to be able to confront racism if they don’t understand the disgusting degree to which it was once accepted and legally practiced in this country? And is editing out such instances from great works of art only creating an atmosphere that softens the truth about that history? Think of the people you see online every day who natter on about the Civil War as a matter of states’ rights and tariffs and preserving a way of life, without having the honesty to recall that the Civil War was actually about states’ rights (to own other people) and tariffs (on owning other people) and preserving a way of life (of owning other people). Do they now get to further challenge the actual existence of historical racism because we’re removing the discomfort of “the n-word” from history because it makes us feel, I don’t know, icky?

Do you know how stupid I feel writing “the n-word” over and over again instead of the actual word? I hate it. I feel like I’m treating you all like a group of six-year-olds, and I have much more respect for you than that. But here I am, second-guessing myself because I’m worried that someone won’t actually listen to the point I’m trying to make and will instead seize on the word itself and call for my head for not being all nicey-nice.

But those are the kind of feelings this new censored version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn creates. Instead of reflecting on the widest, most divisive gulf of our national character, or on the lengths that our country once went to in order to preserve segregation, it now has to tiptoe around an inflammatory word that is chosen deliberately and for the very reason people are afraid of it. It’s supposed to be confrontational. Unfortunately, America seems to have become very afraid of confrontation.

I suppose suggesting that the overly-sensitive not read Huck Finn is too much to ask?

Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at samuraifrog@yahoo.com.

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Comments (1)
  1. Sasparilla Gretsch January 11, 2011

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