By now, if you are an educated, aware human being, you will have no doubt read that recently, editor and Auburn professor Alan Gribben, published a version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word nigger with, oddly, slave and less reported replaced injun with indian. According to the only account I have heard from Mr. Gribben he did it because he felt the offensive words turned young readers off of Twain and he would rather Twain be read, in censored form(?) then not at all.
I haven’t read Huckleberry Finn in a really long time. I barely remember reading it in high school. I didn’t have it assigned in my class, but a friend in AP Lit did and I decided to read it as well. I don’t remember the use of the words injun or nigger being utilized for shock or to espouse racist ideology . I recall it being upsetting, but true to the time and place of the story. I think I was 16 when I read Twain’s novel, maybe younger. It was a work of fiction that captured a specific time period and way of thinking in America’s history. It was not just a story, but a view into the past.
The actions of Professor Gribben are gross. This is, no matter how he attempts to sugar coat it, a form of censorship and defacement of art. That a professor can not understand the importance of language, especially in historical and literary context makes me doubt, strongly, whether he is qualified to be a professor at a school like Auburn. His actions, while well intended they may have been, constitute defacement of art work to the same level as banning said book (something that has been done), removing art work from a National Museum, or burning Dixie Chix albums in the parking lot of a forlorn Sam Goody. It’s offensive, more offensive then the words nigger and injun ever could be.
I studied English and language in College at the University of George Mason. The level of success I have applying this to my everyday life is disputable. My grammar sucks, I can not spell. Run on sentences are par for the course. I am terrible at self editing. But I understand the power of words. In several classes on race, culture, art and literature, the word nigger came up quite often. I’m not uncomfortable, clearly, speaking or typing the word in discussion. But a lot of people are, for a lot of reasons. White people, even in academia are afraid to use it, for fear that it might offend black people within earshot. How many of them listen to gansgsta rap or even use it freely in private is a question I will never have answered. I’ve been confronted with my open use of the word in said settings, a practice I find tiresome. If, as educated, thinking people, we can not confront the stigmas of language and the historical manner in which words are used, then we can not arm ourselves against ignorance. Ignorance comes from hatred and shame. I have seen this explode in public and in the classroom. It’s never pretty.
We can’t be afraid of words and the way they are used. We can despise words and the way they are used, but we can not fail to address them directly. Further, it is wrong to hide history. For Twain, I suspect his use of the words nigger and injun was to convey a vernacular of people where racism was intrinsic, learned from birth and rarely discussed or thought upon. The authenticity of the characters, the historical culture, the lack of tolerance, the lack of education and understanding, Huckleberry Finn is a recounting of it’s time. It is the people’s history, woven in spectacular storytelling and masterful writing. Further, the power that Finn has to confront racism in America, both historically and currently, is such a necessary tool for educators to use, both because it directly confronts these issues and is a masterpiece of literature.
Further, one has to question the change of the word nigger to slave. First, to what purpose does this work linguistically? Nigger is a specific racial epithet. Slave can be applied literally and linguistically to a variety of situations. They are not interchangeable, but to Gribben they seem to be, suggesting a very narrow, racist(?) historical and world view. It also undermines a post-slavery America where racism, born of resentment, was not just common, but acceptable. Washing this out of Twain severs a link between the foundation of American racism and modern attitudes prevalent in culture and government. The use of nigger is meant to dehumanize, separate, segregate a type of person based on an observable trait. Much the way modern American soldiers use the word hadji to identify so-called enemies, casualties and people in war torn parts of the middle east, nigger represents a historical view marred in friction. One that connects the past (nigger) to the present (hadji). Hiding that connection condones that activity, even if it is understood to be born from fear.
Over the last few weeks I haven’t found much support for Gribben. I am sure there are plenty of people who feel like hiding the past protects the children. Obviously, we can’t expose our own ills. That’s evident in almost everything established academia, government and society in general does. As such, the censorship of Huckleberry Finn and Mark Twain does the opposite of its intent. It breeds the acceptance of racism by burying it in shoddy language. This is a shame, this is damn shame.