Let it Be

March 6, 2011
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Society finds itself uncertainly tip-toeing upon an obscure line when the uncomfortable topic of race, and the epithets that so often concern such a topic, is brought about. Often times it is this uncertainty ,when concerning these words, that ultimately causes the public to feel overly sensitive and leads them to call for political correctness where it is unnecessary. This can be seen in the recent proposals for an edition of Mark Twain's classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which all instances of the word "nigger" have been eradicated and replaced by the more palatable and less controversial "slave". A change made in hopes to make the novel more teachable and widen its readership but in turn makes Twain's own moral lesson less teachable. Controversy over the N-word in literature is not over the ethics of the word itself—as there is a general disgust for it—but rather its role in literature and how that role may affect readers.

It has come to the point where what has been called time after time one of America's greatest novels has simultaneously been placed time after time on numerous banned books lists. Caused by nothing else but the precarious nature of what has been dubbed the N-word. Though Twain cannot express his sentiments on the matter, an updated edition of his classic piece will proceed to eliminate all instances of the word "nigger" in an attempt to tackle the effects the word has in the schoolroom setting. Nigger Jim” will now be “Slave Jim” in the new edition of the novel. It seems as if the only solution to quell the racist nature and the unpleasant feelings carried with such a word is to either remove it or altogether ban the book. In a sense throwing the baby out with the bath water. These overly conscious proponents of the new edition feel as if explaining the novel and Twain's rationale for including the term is out of the question. Chief editor and advocate for the new version of the novel Dr. Allen Gribben believes the change will be welcomed by a significant number of school teachers, students, general readers etc. because it spares them from the racial slur. By this action though we are not simply removing a derogatory term but effectively cleansing and sanitizing the past, attempting to formulate a better yesterday for a brighter tomorrow. Gribben over emphasizes the removal of the n-word and ignores that Twain's lessons are simultaneously being removed.

Twain forces his readers to acknowledge and face the racism of antebellum America in hopes that they comprehend and ultimately heal from the legacy of slavery. His inclusion of the n-word gives his readers reason to discuss on all aspects of it no matter how difficult, awkward, and hurtful those discussions may be. The past is has been noted as absolute and non-negotiable; Gribben's attempt to sugarcoat the awful aspects of it would be detrimental. Choosing an alternative word does not teach students to deal honestly with truth; it does nothing to aid in healing from the historic distress that continues to trouble Americans. It achieves nothing but injustice and ignorance. An unvarnished truth of the country's history is a more appropriate and a more reasonable way to help study the portrait of the past and more specifically when referring to Huckleberry Finn, antebellum America.

Literature is an effective means by which ideas and beliefs are expressed and in many cases though not necessarily pleasant, it calls for its readers to face the past. As in Huckleberry Finn in which black slavery is depicted and the word nigger is apparent 219 times. Of course others have been more enthusiastic, namely those associated with New South Books, publisher Suzanne La Rosa suggested , "...that there was a market for a book in which the n-word was switched out for something less hurtful, less controversial". Though this proposal will make the novel less controversial and consequently less uncomfortable to teach it would essentially zap the novel of its authenticity and therefore its value. Leaving it in would serve as a lesson of the hate and indignity that the term carries. Twain's use of the N-word on so many occasions is not without reason. The language depicts America's past and solely that yet it is being treated as if similar to Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo (a short children's story that intentionally depicts blacks with stereotypical physical features). The apprehensive attitude American society has when dealing with race often leads to such rash conclusions. The unwarranted comparison of the two works though drastically different when dealing with race expresses society's want to avert from the topic of race at all costs; in this case by simply banning the novel.

While the n-word is unequivocally offensive it is the context of its use that should be debated in literature rather than its effects on youth. Rather than eliminating the N-word completely and replacing it with a less sensitive word, leaving it in would allow readers to have a better understanding of the racist nature of the past. Though removing the pejorative cannot be compared to eliminating a period of history it would drastically decrease the level of inhumanity that is being expressed. It is an unnecessary whitewashing of history, as well as the struggles endured by slaves, that leaves the readers with less understanding of a troubling time in America's history.

"Nigger” is defined as “usually offensive: a black person” by Merriam-Webster. “Slave” is defined as “a person held in servitude as the chattel of another” , a definition that does not contain even a hint of racially motivated context. Changing "Nigger Jim" to “Slave Jim” changes how he is perceived by the reader — slave is not synonymous with black. The replacement is not to simply eliminate the word altogether because it seems offensive or because it is not appropriate for school children but to evade the subject of race completely. Shielding students from the language of an era gives them a polished version of the novel which is neither true to the author nor the time period. While removing the n-word from the piece takes away from points of discussion replacing it with slave does not add anything to the content.

The removal of the n-word in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes away from the author's literary intent and in effect the ability he has to impress his lessons onto readers. Although it does not completely destroy the book’s commentary on social relationships and other life lessons, it skips over a key term that is entirely relevant to American culture in the late 1800s and the 21st century. It skips over an important feature of many of the worst episodes of bigotry in American history.

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