N Word Debate In Huck Finn Essay

This story was first published March 20, 2011. It was updated on June 12, 2011.

From the moment it was published in 1885, Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" caused controversy. It challenged authority, poked fun at religion and was accused of leading children astray. What's surprising is that 125 years later, Huckleberry Finn is still making news.

Today there are school districts in America that ban this American classic for one reason - one word: "nigger," a word so offensive it's usually called the "N-word."

As we first reported in March, a publishing company in Alabama says that schools don't have to change their reading list because they changed Huckleberry Finn. Their newly released edition removes the N-word and replaces it with "slave." It's a bold move for what is considered one of the greatest works in American literature.

Is it ever okay to say it?
An honest discussion about a racial slur with Byron Pitts, a reporter who speaks from experience.

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is a classic set before the Civil War. The story is told by Huck, a white boy escaping an abusive father, and about his adventures with a black man named Jim, escaping slavery.

Huckleberry Finn is set along the Mississippi River. In it, Twain used the N-word 219 times. To some people, the word gets in the way of the story's powerful message against slavery; to others, Twain is simply capturing the way people talked back then.

"Are you censoring Twain?" correspondent Byron Pitts asked Randall Williams, co-owner and editor of NewSouth Books, publishers of the sanitized edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that replaces the N-word with the word "slave."

"We certainly are accused of censoring Twain," Williams replied.

It's aimed at schools that already ban the book, though no one knows how many have. Williams says they are not trying replace Twain's original, N-word included.

Extra: Students weigh in
Extra: "Slave" vs. the N-word?
Extra: The power behind the N-word
Extra: Is it just marketing?

"If you can have the discussion and you're comfortable havin' the discussion, have it. Have it with it in there. But if you're not comfortable with that, then here's an alternative for you to use. And I would argue to you that it's still powerful," Williams said.

The new edition drew powerful reactions from Twain scholars, the press and ordinary readers - and it's worth noting most of the articles don't spell out the word, either.

"What's it say that people have been so passionate about it?" Pitts asked.

"I think it says that race continues to be a volatile and divisive subject," Williams said.

In this passage, Huck says the word three times in two sentences: "Jim was monstrous proud about it and he got so he couldn't hardly notice the other niggers. Niggers come miles to hear Jim tell about it and he was more looked up to than any nigger in that country."

"What do you think of Huckleberry Finn?" Pitts asked author David Bradley, who teaches at the University of Oregon

"It's a great book. It's one of the greatest books in American literature," Bradley replied.

He says the key to understanding Huckleberry Finn is through Twain's use of language, as the friendship between Huck and Jim unfolds.

"When Huck comes back to that raft, he says, 'They're after us.' He doesn't say, 'They're after you.' He says, 'They're after us.' And that's the moment when it becomes about the American dilemma, it becomes about, 'Are we gonna get along?'" Bradley said.

School districts struggling to teach Huckleberry Finn have called in Bradley. He believes strongly in teaching Twain's original text.

"One of the first things I do is I make everybody say it out loud about six or seven times," Bradley said.

"The N-word?" Pitts asked.

"Yeah, 'nigger.' Get over it," Bradley replied, laughing. "You know. Now let's talk about the book."

Anyone who believes in the power of literature and the arts to make us think should shudder at the prospect of a "new" edition of "Huckleberry Finn" that replaces the n-word with the word "slave." (It's just as bad an idea as banning the book from our classrooms because of the presence of the n-word, as Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron suggested recently.)

Sanitizing the language which aided and abetted white America's denial of the humanity of black Americans from the nation's founding doesn't change that history. It papers it over and allows us to dodge its rawness.

Facing that history in all its offensiveness is crucial to understanding it and transcending it, and literature is uniquely positioned to help us do that.

The n-word is key to critiques of racism found in nonfiction from Frederick Douglass' "Narrative," to W.E.B. Du Bois's "Souls of Black Folk," to Richard Wright's "Black Boy," to James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son," to "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

It is just as central to critiques of racism in Paul Laurence Dunbar's classic story, "The Ingrate" and Countee Cullen's poem "Incident," not to mention novels including Richard Wright's "Native Son," Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," David Bradley's "Chaneysville Incident," Ernest Gaines's "A Lesson Before Dying" - and, yes, Twain's "Huck Finn."

For to expose a racist society for what it is, you have to show racists as they are, speaking as they would speak.

The gifted black satirist and sportswriter, the late Ralph Wiley, who claimed Twain as his most important teacher, wrote that "there is not one use of [the n-word] in 'Huck Finn' that I consider inauthentic, and I am hard to please that way."

The persistence of racism today makes the presence of the n-word in the book's painful. But replacing the word or banning the book instead of addressing the nature of the racism Twain was critiquing is wrongheaded and counterproductive.

The book succeeds precisely because it requires teachers and students to examine what's wrong with a society that gives the most admirable person in it - in this case, the slave, Jim - the same rights as pigs and chickens. This forces readers to question why so many people who thought of themselves as "good" - religious, upstanding, well-meaning - supported the indefensible status quo as long as they did. This latter question, in fact, is the subject of Twain's brilliant essay, "My First Lie and How I Got Out of It," which explores the "lie of silent assertion" - "the silent assertion that nothing is going on which fair and intelligent men are aware of and are engaged by their duty to try to stop."

As Toni Morrison notes, "Huck Finn" was published at a time that "saw the collapse of civil rights for blacks," a time when the country tried "to bury the combustible issues Twain raised in the novel," a time when "the nation, as well as Tom Sawyer, was deferring Jim's freedom in agonizing play."

"Huck Finn" requires teachers and students to engage this bizarre and shameful history. In Morrison's view, "the cyclical attempts to remove the novel from classrooms extend Jim's captivity on into each generation of readers."

Satirist Dick Gregory - a supporter of Barron's - actually uses the n-word, followed by an exclamation point, as the title of his autobiography. He praises Twain, whom he calls the first "genius of comedy," for daring to make this toxic racial epithet central to his satire. Twain "threw it up in the air," Gregory writes, "and I grabbed it." Twain, Gregory adds, "was so far ahead of his time he shouldn't even be talked about on the same day as other people."

Anyone who seriously considers the idea of teaching a bowdlerized version of Twain's novel - or taking Twain's novel out of schools altogether - should stop and appreciate what Twain has accomplished. Bradley, who won the Pen/Faulkner prize for "The Chaneysville Incident," credits Twain with having inspired him to become a writer in the first place. Twain played that role for writers the world over, including Kenzaburo Oe, Japan's Nobel Laureate.

Twain was a stickler for language, always insisting on using the right word and not its second or third cousin. "The difference between the almost right word amd the right word is really a large matter," he wrote. "It is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." Changing Twain's language does much the same as removing his book from the classroom completely. It deprives future Pen/Faulkner hopefuls, and maybe even future Nobel Laureates, from that source of inspiration. It ensures that they never get hit by Twain's lightning. They deserve better. So does Twain.

Fishkin, the Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities and Professor of English at Stanford University, is the editor, most recently, of "The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Work," where one can find the comments on Mark Twain by the authors cited here and others. She was born in Brooklyn. This was adapted from an earlier op-ed that recently ran in the Daily News.

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