07 January 2011

Post 286: something else

A Diatribe Against the Sanitizing, Political Correction, or Otherwise Censoring  of Books
So, I debated about whether or not I was going to write this or not, but then I decided that this is a good issue for a librarian/historian to tackle, and maybe not everyone has heard the news.  A couple of days ago, I found out that NewSouth Books has decided to remove the word "nigger" from Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and replace it with the "less offensive" slave and servant.

Let me just start by saying that one of the reasons I did not like reading those books was because that word was so pervasive.  However, removing the word doesn't remove the atrocities that occurred or erase racism.  All it does is try to hide the ugliness under a rug; but then look at the publishing company.  I am in no way surprised or shocked that a company based in Montgomery, Alabama and Louisville, Kentucky are trying to whitewash the two novels that are in many ways the only experience Northerners have with The South.  I just want to say, if you want to remove the word "nigger" from anything, how about starting with the mouths of your high schoolers?  I can't tell you how many times I heard that word bandied about by the Good Ol' Boys who for some reason thought I was a big ol' Yank and ought to go home, despite the fact that the Civil War has been over for nearly 150 years now.  

And if you think the word "nigger" is so offensive, then why for the love of god did we "celebrate" Robert E. Lee day on the same day as Martin Luther King day?  Might that not be considered just a little insensitive given what each was fighting for?  That's about as thoughtful as giving someone with lactose intolerance a cheesecake for their birthday.  I'm not against celebrating Southern history, there is definitely some benefit in studying it and even celebrating the fact that most of the negative stuff is over, at least in the legal sense.  I am all for having a "Thank god, we don't enslave men, women, and children just because they happened to have dark skin" day.  This would be a great thing to celebrate.  There ought to be freakin' hoe downs and dancing by the glow of the bonfire and spiritual orgies of the joyous celebration of freedom.  But revering a hero of the South without recognizing that maybe he was just a little fucked up is disregarding a major fact of history and completely defeats the purpose of studying it all together.

The fact that NewSouth is removing this word from the text is an awful lot like denying a part of history.  In essence, they are no better than the people who denied that the Holocaust ever happened, despite the evidence of survivors, documentation by the Nazis, and the physical camps themselves.  And the reason that Huck Finn is such a powerful book is the friendship between Huck and Jim, despite the fact that everyone else thinks that Jim is an inferior person.  By removing the word "nigger" from the text, we are essentially neutering Huck Finn and removing the potency of the development of that relationship.  In this way, the relationship becomes more about overcoming class than racism and you might as well just turn Jim into an uneducated white farmer.  In the end, the word "nigger" is important to the story and taking it out changes the meaning, making it a different book, and Mark Twain's name ought to be removed.  I highly doubt he would want to be associated with this abomination, and you can bet if he were still alive he'd be working on a hell of a letter to the editor right now.

In response to Alan Gribben's reasoning behind this decision
I understand that you want this work to continue being taught.  I agree that it is extremely distressing that it is being removed from the classroom simply because it contains this particular word.  However, this is not the solution.  The problem is that there are people out there who not only wish to parent their own children, but have taken it upon themselves to prevent other people's children from being exposed to ideas or words they disagree with.  

In the introduction to this work, which is thankfully available for free online, Gribben states, "Consequently in this edition I have translated each usage of the n-word to read 'slave' instead, since the term 'slave' is closest in meaning and implication."  No.  The term slave is not inherently negative in all cultures nor an indication of a necessarily inferior class of people.  Nigger does not equal slave, because a slave can still be seen as a person, one who was subjugated into this brand of servitude regardless of their innate worth or intelligence.  "Niggers" were seen as being inherently inferior and undeserving of respect of body, mind, soul, or family relations.  If you wanted to replace the word nigger, it ought to have been with something that held the same connotations of inferiority and worthlessness that most people in the South showed black Americans at that time; slave just doesn't quite do it.

And now a word from someone else on the matter:

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