Jenice Armstrong: Why whitewash n-word from 'Huck Finn'?

Mark Twain might be stomping around in heaven, if that's where he ended up.
Mark Twain might be stomping around in heaven, if that's where he ended up.
Posted: January 06, 2011

I DESPISE THE N-WORD but not so much that I think it needs to be removed from great works of literature such as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," as one publisher is doing.

The racial epithet appears a whopping 219 times in the Mark Twain classic. As a way to get more schools, particularly the ones that have banned it, to teach the historic novel, NewSouth Books has replaced the slur with the word "slave" in the edition that's coming out next month.

Somebody better call the literature police.

Those two words are not synonyms. Nope, not even close. They each mean something entirely different. Besides, tampering with Twain's epic tale of the friendship between a runaway boy and an escaped slave is equivalent to painting a hat on Mona Lisa's head. Or to putting booty shorts on Michaelangelo's David. You don't jack around with great art, even if it jars our modern-day sensibilities.

I suspect Twain's stomping around in heaven at the very concept.

Not that you can blame him.

I'm not completely unsympathetic to the folks at NewSouth, though. They're in the business of selling books, and a whole lot of schools shy away from teaching this one because of discomfort over language.

The book is banned in some districts and placed on optional-reading lists in others.

It's easier to substitute another great novel instead of having to explain the historical context for Twain's use of the n-word and risk getting parents and students all worked up.

I'll never forget how uncomfortable it made me feel when our high-school class was introduced to the book and we read passages aloud.

This was the dark ages, of course, well before the n-word had become the norm in certain forms of music, so I wasn't used to it. But I understood that the language was reflective of the pre-Civil War era and that it was how certain folks talked back then. And, sadly, continue to speak.

Still, I cringed when a friend read aloud from "Huckleberry Finn," laughing and stumbling over the unfamiliar vernacular.

But I'm not for censuring or hacking up books. Instead of teaching from a sanitized Twain, educators should just pick another classic novel altogether.

There are plenty that are equally as good and have similar themes. I've never been much a "Huckleberry Finn" fan anyway. The plot starts off interesting enough, but devolves into a whole lot of tomfoolery along the way that made my eyes glaze over, as the expression goes.

I bristled at the paternalistic way that Huck, who was just a kid, treats Jim, who's substantially older, albeit a runaway slave. Huck ruminates over feeling guilty for not returning Jim to his owner even though he considered Jim "white on the inside."

Although Huck grows to accept Jim as his equal, I never liked the way Tom Sawyer admits he knew that Jim had already been freed by his owners but that he came up with his elaborate escape plan anyway, just for laughs. That wasn't funny. You don't mess around with a man's freedom. I was relieved when our class moved on to another book.

NewSouth's plan to sanitize "Huck Finn" by removing the n-word and the term Injun, as well, is superficial besides being sacrilegious. Some of the smartest folks around town agree with me.

"It's part of the English lexicon," complained Chad Dion Lassiter, president of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work. "Taking it out of a classic like 'Huck Finn,' what does it do? It's part of history."

Said Charles A. Gallagher, a sociology professor at La Salle: "This is an overstep, in some way, to deal with the fact that as a society we are still uncomfortable talking about race. When you have the n-word 200 times, you have to talk about race."

Therein lies the real issue.

And removing the n-word from "Huckleberry Finn" wouldn't negate that.

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