New version of Huck Finn not censorship but conversation starter

I have been mulling over some of the commentary on the recently released edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. I disagree with the notion that the release of an additional edition of the book without the n-word mentioned 219 times is an act of censorship. I also believe that the release of this text promotes an environment that is more conducive to conversations focusing on sexism in hip hop.

There are few literary texts that have had the impact The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer has had on my perception of self and my work as an advocate against sexism in hip hop. Starting with the former, I am a product of a school system where Huck Finn was required reading. Having the book read out loud in my 8th grade classroom, where I was the only black person in my grade, was one of the most depressing experiences of my life. Classmates snickered and jeered as the n-word was repeated and repeated, some seemingly reveling in the fact that this exercise gave them the opportunity to use a word that a few of them had used against me.

Worse, the readings didn’t accompany any conversation about how the use of this term complicated the relationship between Jim and Huck. This n-word fest is perhaps the only thing I recall from a book that has been referred to as “the single most important American book ever.” Despite the pain I experienced that day, I don’t think all existing copies that contain that version of Huck Finn should be abolished, something that would be considered true censorship. Instead, I think classrooms of young adults and children, who are unlikely to engage in debates on the complexities of race will benefit from an additional version of the book that allows teachers to focus on the literary attributes of the text.

While unexpected and seemingly unrelated, this move of providing a text more aimed at instruction instead of degradation stands to affect another important conversation on women’s rights. Huck Finn came up again when I worked with women’s rights groups and Congressman Bobby Rush’s office on the 2007 Congressional Hearing, “From Imus to Industry: The Business of Stereotypes and Degradation.” The hearing was called to address misogynist portrayals of black women in hip hop. Yet, some presenters refused to address misogyny instead focusing on how offensive content in American media made their use of offensive content permissible. David “real girls get down on the floor” Banner, was called upon to speak on behalf of contemporary rap artists. Here’s what he stated on the infamous book in question:

Mark Twain’s literary classic, Huckleberry Finn, is still required reading in classrooms across the United States of America. The word “nigger” appears in the book approximately 215 times. While some may find this offensive, the book was not banned by all school districts because of its artistic value. The same consideration should be extended to hip-hop music…I can admit that there are some problems in hip-hop.
But it is only a reflection of what is taking place in our society. Hip-hop is sick because America is sick.

I waited for the cameras and fans to fade until I gave him a brief, polite testimony on how his charge that “real girls get down on the floor” played a negative role in the way men interacted with me in club settings and on the street. I spoke with him about how his portrayal of scantily clad black women in his music videos affected young black girls and suggested that he should perhaps reevaluate his methods of entertaining. He brushed off my sentiments as divide and conquer tactics saying, “That’s exactly what they [white people] want you to do.” He later chided that I was “emasculating” and I should instead “support” him.

I can’t tell you how many instances I have endured where men of color have refused to engage in conversations about sexism because they couldn’t see past their own circumstance and environment–one that doesn’t just affect them as men. This additional copy of Huck Finn represents that we are developing less tolerance for degrading content. Those who seek to justify offensive content with the “everyone-else-is-doing-it” mantra, or avoid conversations altogether, will have fewer excuses.

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13 Comments

  1. Posted January 13, 2011 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    I have to say that my own personal experience dictates how I feel about Huck Finn. I attended a school district in which POC were a decided minority, but I recall my classmates being so uncomfortable with the word that it was an instantly taboo topic. Kids were cruel in using other words, particularly “fag”, “gay”, and “pussy” to refer to men who didn’t fit the typical profile, but the N word was off-limits.

    We’d grown up in a region of the country with an ignorable, shameful past of racism, and avoiding that term at all cost was something drummed into us from the cradle. We often told ourselves, We know better than to say a stupid thing like that.

    I do respect where you are coming from. I speak only for myself here. Often obscenities spring up faster than you can address them. I remember all the slanderous internet rumors that cropped up when Barack Obama was running for President. A rapid response team had its hands full, and for lie refuted, another one took its place. I think the same happens for offensive words like the kind described. Some people will use them as justification for their own equally regressive speech. Some will see them as artifacts of a different time, pointing to places where we came from and where we are are not to go again.

    I would keep Twain’s book the way it is because I feel like the process of revision often will have no end point, and that individuals, not the group, are the key problem.

  2. Posted January 13, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    “Instead, I think classrooms of young adults and children, who are unlikely to engage in debates on the complexities of race will benefit from an additional version of the book that allows teachers to focus on the literary attributes of the text.”

    I agree that the change in the text is not a complete censorship, and I can see that including a word that is hurtful and isolating to students in the class can do more harm then good. However, I don’t agree with the notion that younger students won’t engage in this topics or in this national debate.

    When I read this book in high school, we did engage in debates on the complexity of race and the use of the word “nigger” in the text. The text provides teachers an opportunity to discuss engage social issues, and teach students that those issues are part of art and literature.

  3. Posted January 13, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I go back and forth on the changing Mark Twain thing, because as a teacher, I think it is vital to discuss race and how the use of the n-word affects Jim and Huck’s relationship, and when I teach it those things are discussed. But in classrooms where it won’t be discussed…I can understand the need for a text that doesn’t include or replaces the word. But then again if the classroom isn’t going to discuss race and the affect of Huck’s attitude toward Jim has on their relationship…I don’t know why you’d teach the novel…

  4. Posted January 13, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Twain took such care with writing in dialect that to change his language is, to me, wrong. A conversation starter would be Twain’s reflection of the language of the time and what it implied to Tom Sawyer in the era of the story. I would rather sit down with a chld to talk about words, what they mean now and what they meant then, than revise Twain’s work. I see that as fundamentally difference from a rapper using current street talk to describe his stories in the present time.

  5. Posted January 13, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m white, and so I have the privilege of not having such a painful word used against me throughout history. I can understand the hesitation of assigning a book that uses the n-word numerous times, especially when the students may not be mature enough to understand the full affect of that word in the context of the story. However, I get uncomfortable at the idea of having kids read an alternative version. Like it or not, that is a word that people used, a lot, and without apology. It wasn’t even a matter of discussion, slaves were n—— and the characters in the book refer to them as such, usually not in an overtly mean way (or course, by virtue of being in the 1800s, blacks were considered well below whites, and that assumption was rarely questioned even by those who wanted to abolish slavery). I worry that students who read the cleaner version won’t fully grasp how racism in that time was not just doled out by the mean people, but by the hero of the story as well. Huck calls Jim the n-word because that’s the society he was raised in, where even a vagrant, poor white child is superior to a black man.

    So, yeah. I’m a bit concerned about having kids read the version without the n-word. But then, I also don’t think they should read the book until 11th or 12th grade either, when they are a bit more mature. A large amount of discussion in class should be devoted to the themes of racism, and how Mark Twain wrote it intending to be a criticism of our innate racism.

  6. Posted January 13, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    No, the new version of “Huck Finn” isn’t censorship. Technically the term is “bowdlerization”.

    I’m sorry your classmates treated you that way and snickered at the word. I’m also sorry that your teacher didn’t see this as a teaching moment to try and drill through their thick little skulls that by behaving that way they were embodying the kind of society and attitudes that Twain was indicting.

  7. Posted January 13, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I teach history at a college, and in some of my US History discussions we have read some very racist and sexist material. But I think it’s vitally important for students to read that kind of material because how else can they understand racism and sexism? How do you show the pervasive linguistic racism of 19th century America if students don’t read passages that use the n-word? I don’t know that Huck Finn could show the reality and history of American racism as effectively if it was censored. On the other hand, your teacher absolutely should have began a conversation about race based on the book and why the n-word is unacceptable – without that conversation, it can turn, as it did in your case, into a perpetuation of racism.

  8. Posted January 13, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    It always makes me uneasy when we change how the past is depicted. I understand what you’re saying – not ALL copies will be edited, but the students reading the edited copy will only know a sanitized version of history. Hiding injustices because students aren’t ready is not the right thing to do and downplays both the teachers and the students responsibility. It sounds like your 8th grade teacher handled a sensitive situation poorly. But instead of trying to remove the word, I think we should work to help teachers explain where the word fits in the history of this country and address the larger problems that are happening today.

    It’s unfortunate that Banner is using a 100 year old book as a ‘reflection of what is taking place in our society,’ instead of what TOOK place. Though we can’t have Twain re-write his novel, we can change hip-hop now.

  9. Posted January 13, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    I can agree that this book can be problematic if the racism of the book isn’t discussed, but I think that it is very important that it is discussed. I think the fact that Jim and other black people in the book are so casually dehumanized is important to understanding the time and place the book is taking place in, and I believe that is what Twain was trying to illustrate. Also, I totally agree with Caitlyn, Twain worked very hard to make the dialects in his book correct, and no one gets to alter that. Offensive things are published all the time, and the best we can do is to use them as teaching moments.

  10. Posted January 13, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    No. No. A million times no.

    Without a doubt, Huck Finn can be tough if teachers handle it poorly. It’s a complex work with a lot of nuance to it, and part of that comes from Twain’s analysis of race and racism in his era.

    Cutting out the “nigger” from the character of Nigger Jim is like cutting off Jim’s legs in a literary sense.

    It’s important for the reader to know that characters refer to him this way. It’s really, really important. No, it’s not enough for him just to be maligned. It’s necessary for someone reading Huck Finn to know that Jim can never escape the “n-word”, that he is constantly talked about in this term.

    Here’s the reason why: the entire character of Jim is a subversion of the racist assumptions of Twain’s time. Jim is meant to embody typical American stereotypes of the time (especially the Sambo figure), but he overcomes them by being without a doubt THE most admirable adult in the entire novel. So yeah, he gets scared by ghosts, and yeah, sometimes he doesn’t understand things, but ultimately Jim is the father figure that all well-meaning white society members can’t provide for Huck. Jim cares for Huck in the only truly selfless manner in the entire book, and Huck comes to learn that in the way a child can.

    There is no figure in Huck Finn who is more heroic and less villainous than Jim, and yet he is referred to by his peers as “nigger”. That means SO MUCH. Taking that away from literature is taking away one of the largest fictional confrontations of racism in American history in the name of subverting racism. It’s censorship, yes, and it’s misguided censorship.

    Taught correctly, students will realize that the most genuinely human character in the book is decried by his racist peers as being less than human, a clear criticism of American society, and an important one. Yes, some students will snicker at times, but allowing immature students to knock down one of the pillars of American literature is tantamount to intellectual surrender by educators.

    It will be a sad day when students learn merely about “Jim” for the sake of NOT being racist.

  11. Posted January 13, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you that K-12 schools do a *terrible*, actually, nonexistent job, of discussing race issues or racial history in schools. It’s partly because it’s seen as a “political” topic that teachers aren’t supposed to broach because it threatens our national myth of rabid individualism (a la batty Arizona banning ethnic studies, in an attempt to pretend like race doesn’t exist). But I don’t think this is necessarily a reason to edit out the word. The book *could* be a great catalyst to approach race issues. Twain was generally anti-racist. He wrote a perhaps more race-focused short novel, _Pudd’nhead Wilson_, which more lucidly portrays (and mocks) the arbitrary “rules” and power dynamics upon which slavery was based (e.g., the One Drop Rule, etc.).

    Still, I understand where you’re coming from. I live in an area where the one-black-kid-in-an-entire-school phenomenon is not uncommon. I can see that your scenario would be awkward and isolating in a classroom with only one or two minority students.

    And books go through many changes and iterations; they are not, as most of us believe, nuggets of brilliance which rolled directly from the hand and mind of the writing author. Texts are edited and re-edited in order to get published, sometimes even primarily *written* by editors.

  12. Posted January 16, 2011 at 12:40 am | Permalink

    I remember when “mature” was a verb, and not just an uncaused adjective.

  13. Posted January 16, 2011 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    Whoa, wait, just read this gem: “I disagree with the notion that the release of an additional edition of the book without the n-word mentioned 219 times is an act of censorship.”

    Unless “slave” and “nigger” mean exactly the same thing [and they don't], replacing the latter with the former changes the meaning of an idea expressed using the word “nigger”, and to argue otherwise shows a hubristic ignorance as to how the book was written, why the book was written how it was written, and a general ignorance of semantics and, to a larger extent, linguistics, and–well, logic. Look at it this way: a sentence is the amalgamation of the thoughts behind each word, and a book is the sum of all those amalgamated thoughts: writing is a math equation. By removing “nigger”, you are changing the equation: 1+1+1≠1+1+2; with each “edit” you make, the book’s summary meaning changes, until you’re left with a different book. Censorship is censorship is censorship.

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