N-word in 'Huck Finn' starts a conversation we need to haveby David Cazares, Minnesota Public Radio
I sat with my daughter last weekend to discuss a book I thought she hadn't yet read, with no intention of choosing my words delicately.
Though she's only in middle school, I wanted her to know all about a controversial plan to remove the word "nigger" from Mark Twain's novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" -- and that she should read the unchanged work.
Allan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University, wants to give teachers and parents a choice that would make it easier for them to introduce young readers to the classic, sparing them from the hateful word. Gribben and NewSouth Books decided to replace the epithet with "slave."
To hear some tell it, that's a noble thing to do, as it might allow more young people to read Twain's novel without having to endure such hurtful repetition of the word. In his fictionalized account of pre-Civil War America, Twain uses the word more than 200 times. His use of it reflects its prevalence in the United States during that era -- and not only in the South.
To me, Gribben's effort to remove the word from the novel isn't so much a question of protecting our children, but of presenting them with a sanitized -- dare I say "whitewashed"? -- version of our troubled history.
I know how hateful the word is. I'm of black and Mexican-American heritage and have had it hurled at me, along with other vile insults. Like so many people of color I'm very much aware that the nation is a long way from recovering from its shameful legacy.
It's understandable that many parents, including black parents, would want to protect their children from a word that for more than a century was used to assault people. But this small censorship comes at a price: another denial of our nation's racist past.
Do we also look past the efforts of those who would romanticize the pre-Civil War period and who argue that the conflict was about so-called state's rights and not slavery? Should we pay heed to those who say there is no longer a racial divide, when a national conversation on race is still sorely needed?
I think not. If we needed a reminder of how not to ignore the past, we received one last week, when members of the House of Representatives read the Constitution -- omitting language about slaves being three-fifths of a person, or noting that the original document did not grant women the right to vote.
We simply can't change history, even or especially if it makes people feel uncomfortable. It should be told as it was. That's why we can't view Twain's novel --or 19th century America -- through a modern prism. Our national enlightenment on race is far too recent, and incomplete.
"Huckleberry Finn" isn't the ideal novel. Indeed, one can argue, as some scholars have, that the slave Jim is an imperfect, minstrel-like character.
However, the book derives power from Twain's portrayal of Jim as not just a slave, but a human being who wants to free his family -- no easy presentation in the 1870s. Huck, who speaks in the language of the day, is a moral voice, given his devotion to Jim.
Like Twain's characters, our nation is far from perfect. We fulfill its promise by seeking to change.
As I try to teach my multiracial daughters about our evolving society, I want them to understand how we arrived at this moment. I want them to celebrate enduring and majestic African-American contributions to art, science and the struggle for human rights. But I hope they will see how such an uplifting and faithful spirit emerged.
It came from a people who overcame the burdens of slavery, systemic oppression and discrimination. From people who endured a slur created to rob them of their humanity.
That's why I want them to read Twain's version of the text, "nigger" and all.
My daughter tells me she read "Huckleberry Finn," on her own initiative, last year, when we were briefly apart. At 13, she doesn't yet understand the complexities of the novel, its era or language, but she will.
"Huckleberry Finn" is a demanding read for young people the first time around. It requires teachers, and parents, to prepare for difficult conversations about history and race.
I can't help but think it's better to have such conversations than avoid them.
David Cazares is an editor for MPR News.