Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Huck Finn and the Nigger in the Woodpile

Note: Mark Brendle is a media critic for BarnesandNoble.com, a short-fiction writer and the author of the Criterion Recollection series for Et tu, Mr. Destructo?. Today he takes a break from reviewing classic cinema to address a word volatile enough to create powerful anxiety and debate for parents' groups, school representatives and even booksellers. You can follow him on Twitter.

Recently NewSouth Books, an impossibly ironic name, partnered with a Mark Twain scholar named Alan Gribben to publish an edition of Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The noteworthy thing about this edition is that it completely removes the word "nigger" from the book.

While some may see this as a harmless attempt to render Twain’s novel accessible to younger children, in fact it does a two-fold harm and sets a dangerous precedent for the publishing industry. First, manipulating a text after the fact, especially one as well known and well-liked as Huckleberry Finn, is a disservice to the author and more importantly to the work itself. The second, more grievous harm caused by this attempt to make the novel "politically correct" consists of a revisionist mentality toward American history.

Gribben, the brains behind this edition, claims that the idea for changing the book came to him as he gave public readings of Huck Finn and substituted the word "slave" for "nigger" as he spoke. However, his hesitation to speak this word aloud, in front of an audience of listeners, illustrates the very reason why it must remain in the novel. The very embarrassment Gribben, and most anyone, feels when using the word "nigger" is a direct result of a complex and terrible history that will be a part of our country forever. "Nigger" and "slave" are in no way synonymous — just ask a racist whose ancestors came to America in indentured servitude. While it’s true that slavery is the central issue around which the word "nigger" was developed, it can hardly be said that "slave" carries the same connotations as "nigger."

The word is a symbol. It stands for multiple, often contradictory, ideas, emotions, histories and attitudes. The visceral, raw power surrounding the word comes from the fact that it represents the undeniable truth that in our very recent past, white Americans treated black people as subhuman. This is a memory that white America would like to sweep under the rug and about which black America is rightfully still angry. American exceptionalist rhetoric about the divine destiny of a nation falls on outraged ears when we remember that its emergence as a tobacco- and textiles-exporting power came on the backs of slave labor. Some rich Americans, mostly southerners, can still trace their inheritance to the horrendous practice of slavery. This is a history that cannot and must not be forgotten or, more heinously, erased.

The fact that the word "nigger" was commonplace speech until the Civil Rights Movement (a mere fifty years ago) is only outmatched by the fact that in some corners of America it still is. As I wrote in a previous article on William Faulkner, the legacy of American slavery, of the antebellum southern states, of monstrosity after monstrosity committed upon disenfranchised, displaced peoples, must be retained forever. Like Faulkner, Twain used the open and unabashed racism of the south against it. By documenting, albeit in a fictional novel, the conditions of the time and place, Twain established a record, to which future generations could refer, of what race relations were really like in America at the time of the story.

The issue at hand here is not so much "textual puritanism," although I imagine it takes a great deal of arrogance to re-write Mark Twain. The issue is the systematic destruction of evidence regarding America’s sordid history. Americans often wonder how modern Germans live with the legacy of Nazism and the Holocaust. It is a strange phenomenon for future generations of a specific nationality to be both innocent and implicit in their nation's past actions. As Americans we take great credit for the positive accomplishments of our forefathers. "We" stormed the beaches at Normandy. "We" rebelled against the English. "We" built a free democracy. But "we" also enslaved hundreds of thousands of people, used their labor power for "our" profit, and "we" treated other human beings, no less developed or capable than ourselves, as animals, as less than animals.

Dr. Gribben is right to feel ashamed to say "nigger" in public, and those listening are right to feel embarrassed by his saying it. However, this is the reason to keep the word, not the reason to excise it. Race relations in modern America are far from perfect. The results of our decades of slavery still linger today. The word "nigger" may not be proper for a day-to-day conversation, but it belongs in any literature that makes a claim to truth of this topic.

Even the various news articles on this new edition refuse to print the word "nigger," opting instead for the somehow more socially acceptable "n-word." Not to break down anyone’s compartmentalization, but saying or writing "n-word" is a cowardly shortcut to saying "nigger." Unless you are a racist and the context in which you use the word is derogatory, you are doing everyone, especially black people, a disservice by glossing over this brutal symbol. This sleight-of-hand is insulting to anyone with intelligence, as it simultaneously conjures the word "nigger" in the mind of the reader, yet supposedly absolves the writer from using that dreaded word.

One does not wear kid gloves when writing real literature. Nor should one expect correctness of today’s milquetoast variety while reading it. If a parent feels that a child is incapable of understanding and dealing with the word "nigger" in the context of Huckleberry Finn, then perhaps that child should not be reading the novel in the first place. The attempt to dumb down, or at best age-down, literature is a futile pursuit that only cheapens the source material and promotes ignorance in all involved. It is one step removed from the even more barbaric and ignorant practice of outright banning a book — which has repeatedly happened to Huckleberry Finn already, for the same obfuscatory or soft-pedaled white apologia reasons. If you want your child to read a non-threatening adventurous romp, buy any of the millions of genre fiction paperbacks available in bookstores. Do not try to fit a complex work of literature into the narrow confines of your comfort.

On NewSouth's website in a recent press release, they put forward the argument that by publishing Huckleberry Finn without the offensive racial epithets (they also removed "Injun") they are opening up the work to schools and people who otherwise would never read it because of censorship in public education. While on the surface this may seem like a just and moral reason to move in this direction, in actuality it is nothing but pandering to the will of ignorance. Attempting to absorb the meaning of Huckleberry Finn in the absence of the ugliness it shows us about race is like trying to glean significance from Animal Farm with all the references to communism removed. Blunting the most significant weapon that gives them their force winds up giving readers a funny story about riverboat adventure or animals that can talk. Given that, if Gribben's tactics are successful, and states or schools that would otherwise ban the book allow it into their curricula, what precedent does that set for other books? Will these same arrogant, ignorant citizens, bullying school systems into submission, use this threat of removal from the curriculum to have other works changed to suit their agenda?

Rather than releasing a new edition of Huckleberry Finn, or any other book, shouldn't this effort rather be spent discussing and debating the rationale of a supposed pedagogical institution refusing to teach an important work of literature because it makes their PTAs or other parents' groups uncomfortable? They are in the wrong, not Twain. Gribben flippantly quotes Twain by mentioning works "which people praise and don't read." Yet in presenting a modified, whitewashed version of the book, Gribben accomplishes nothing, because the book people will eventually read is not the book that Twain wrote.

In the introduction to this new edition, Gribben defends his choices making many of the arguments I've covered here. However, at the end of the intro, he says "This NewSouth Edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is emphatically not intended for academic scholars." This dividing line between the ivory tower academic community and the "general reader" only adds to the already gaping schism that exists between the two. Twain's novel should be equally accessible to both "academic scholars" and the "general reader." The idea of a "lesser" version being served to schools and libraries continues the alarming trend of the devaluation of the worth of literature in popular and public discourse — replaced by quantifiable testing, The Bible as the only book of literature and political philosophy you need, ketchup as a vegetable.

This assumption that high school students are too immature, ignorant or plain stupid to understand how to handle a word like "nigger" in context is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we do not give people a chance to prove they are up to the challenge of critical thought, we only push them farther down the slippery slope of pseudo-education. In order to teach a person correctly, one must have respect for the intelligence and capability of that person. This line in the intro about the edition not being "intended for academic scholars" reads as a sly wink wink that makes their apparent motivation (keeping the book in the school systems) totally transparent and ridiculous. A graduate student or English professor may have more resources at his or her disposal with which to handle the racial tension in Huckleberry Finn, but a high school student is no less deserving of the opportunity to handle it.

It's no surprise that the majority of these issues occur in the southern United States where the memories of slavery still burn and linger. Race relations still are tense and this type of sidestep may be an attempt to cover the material without increasing tension in an already volatile situation. However, the situation should be volatile. It seems no one is asking whether or not the anger that the word "nigger" brings up is warranted, simply that it should be avoided.

From writing "N-word," to "slave," to whatever facile dissimulation allows discussion of the thing without the thing itself, these tactics are a clear attempt to diffuse the actual essence of the question the word "nigger" begs, which is: How does America deal with the terrible history of slavery and the treatment of African Americans up to the present day, and how, if at all possible, can America repair the fissure between races in the future? These questions must be asked, must be debated, must be mulled over and critically examined. We cannot afford to sugarcoat the past. It is a great disservice to the men, women, and children who suffered under the hatred of this word for so long to deny its use or existence in order to cushion our own study.

The phrase "nigger in the woodpile" is an apt and ironic description of America’s history. And as the saying suggests, many would attempt to cover up and dismiss this non-flattering portion of our legacy. However, nothing good can come from dissimulation, from censorship, from denial of the truth. Only education, explanation, memory and critical thought can make the present and future better from the lessons of the past. This is another reason why selecting an edition of a work is important. I highly recommend the Norton Critical Edition of Huckleberry Finn. In addition to a pristine version of the text, the reader will also be supplied with copious annotations, criticism and contexts. Context remains the central issue here. Not the context of the book, in which time it was acceptable to say "nigger," but the context of our own time, where we must remember the mistakes of the past, not try to hide from them.

Changing "nigger" to "slave" in Huck Finn is not politically correct, by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, it is its opposite. It is a crime of omission, of revisionist history, on an important literary text. Will Faulkner be next? Or Conrad? Or what about Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright? Will white America’s guilt over slavery and race relations deface all literature that deals with this important subject?

Shame on NewSouth Books for bankrolling this ridiculous idea. Shame on Alan Gribben for advocating and defending it. As a professor at an institute for higher education, he should know better. At best he is looking for some opportunistic shock publicity; at worst he actually believes the word should be omitted. Shame on all readers and parents who would rather maintain an illusory façade of correctness than admit to, and be educated about, the truth. And shame on America for the horrible string of associations behind the word "nigger."

"We" have to live with that legacy forever.

13 comments:

  1. Bravo, bravo. Couldn't have said it better myself, 'cuz my cock totally turtles when I try to say "Nigger" in public.

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  2. the main character in Native Son is being rebranded as B-word Thomas.

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  3. Great piece, but I feel I should mention Conrad's already been hit by this - when was the last time a copy of Nigger of the Narcissus in print? That wasn't called The N-Word of the Narcssus, anyway (http://www.wordbridge.net/reprint/narcissus.htm).

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  4. Could it be...Confessions of an English Illicit Drug User? OMG....,Thatcherites taking over the world? MURDERING de Quincey's good name. Just. Say. No.

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  5. I'm thankful that they had us read the unabridged version of Huck Finn in school. Oddly, they did allow some kids to bow out of reading the book with a note from their parents, and I think a couple of the kids in my class ended up not doing it.

    Judging by the outrage parents in my community had when I was growing up when kids were playing Oregon-fucking-Trail on old Apple-II computers because "people got sick and died and stuff", and that people in the class seemed genuinely interested in the book, I'm pretty sure the notes weren't forged by kids trying to get out of American Lit for three weeks.

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  6. when was the last time a copy of Nigger of the Narcissus in print?

    That would be right now, in at least four different editions, and also for your Kindle. Why would you make a comment like that without taking a few seconds to find out whether it's true or not?

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  7. As a parent of a young child and a public school employee (not a teacher) I struggle with ideas of shielding my daughter from some of the world's harsher realities while at the same trying to help her understand life's greater lessons, and the history of the world she lives in. Books like "Huckleberry Fin", "The Color Purple" and other works in the hands of capable teachers deepen the minds of children allowing them to grow as people and neutering in this way scares me to my core. I cannot help but be reminded of the controversy over condoms in sex ed and the amount of harm done to young people who were force fed the idea that abstinence and ignorance are all you need to get by. Parents/People acting with self inflated moral authority, because the truth is too much for them to handle.

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  8. I've been making this same argument across the blogosphere lately - albeit not as well reasoned and written - mine was more visceral and angry - you make an excellent and impassioned case against the whitewashing of our collective history.
    Sometime today I am going to link to this in my blog, it's a must read in my opinion.

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  9. Thanks for all the comments everyone.

    To make a few points:

    Conrad's Nigger of the Narcissus is still in print, as was pointed out, and is, along with Huck Finn, available in a Norton Critical Edition that offers copious contexts, criticisms, and annotations. Highly recommended.

    To address the last comment, it seems to me that if adults gave more credit to young people than they seem to and if public schools had the autonomy to teach a proper curriculum without being bullied by parents' groups or other special interests, it would be possible to both retain the difficult parts of literature and provide a critical, dialogue based environment where such issues could be discussed without prejudice.

    Education, even public grade school education, should be about creating a space in which ideas, be they quotidian or taboo, can be hashed out in an academic manner without fear of offense, ignorant reactionists, or even loss of work. School systems should be designed to promote critical thinking, to lead children, teenagers, and adults to a method by which they can filter and reflect upon new information long after they have left school behind. Unfortunately, the "shoulds" of this world are not often the "ares."

    In my opinion, the bottom line is that America does not take education seriously. Even institutes of higher education are becoming more and more like corporations than colleges. The university and the internet are the last bastions of free speech, open discussion, and critical thought. But this isn't because of some ivory tower elitism (well, maybe for some people it is ;) ) it is more because everything else is tailored to be "politically correct" (another way of imposing some external morality or pseudo-morality) or, much worse, is done in the interests of capitalism. That is to say that when something, anything, is subservient to profit, it cannot, by definition, retain its integrity. That's another issue for another article, perhaps, but needless to say it does factor in to this one.

    Finally, to take up the point that this is just "one edition of many" and people "have a choice" to buy one or the other, I believe that entire argument rests on a fallacy, the fallacy that one can alter the text of a work and market it as an option. A modified Huck Finn or any other work, is not an alternative to the original. It is a desecration of the original that only serves to further someone's agenda. One doesn't choose between the "old version" of Hamlet where everyone dies (spoilers, sorry) and the "other edition" where everything just works out fine. That isn't a choice, it's willful destruction.

    Thanks again for reading and commenting.

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  10. I teach a cute bunch of critical thinking niggas in South Central who laugh at the idea of eradicating racism in its most ordinary incarnations, and mock the idea of how white people say "n-word."

    For that matter, when a cadre of black celebrities was calling for their fellow blacks to stop using the word "nigga" with each other, I recall a student telling me, "That Cosby is a nigga; he best not forget he a nigga; he in white man's America."

    Last school year, our principal, a black woman, tried to keep our English teachers from teaching a book to the 10th graders called "Our America", written by young kids in Chicago, about life in their housing projects. She said the themes were too "adult," and inappropriate.

    You'll be happy to hear that not only do our 12th grade students read unabridged, uncensored Huck Finn, this year's 10th graders are currently reading Our America.

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  11. Is this the thing they didnt want to post on barnes and noble? Baahhahaha

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Et tu, Mr. Destructo? is a politics, sports and media blog whose purpose is to tell jokes or be really right about things. All of us have real jobs and don't need the hassle that telling jokes here might occasion, which is why some contributors find it more tasteful to pretend to be dead mass murderers.