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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