Blogging about items in the news is a time-honored tradition amongst lame hit-monger bloggers who just want traffic for the sake of traffic. But today I heard something that I would love to hear everyone weigh in on so I’m going to indulge. But first I need to share an experience with you:
A couple of months ago I answered the phone at the library. A voice asked for the reference desk. After I said I could help, the person said, “Yes, I have a question. Can you tell me if it is true that President Obama’s father was a n*****?”
I’ve become pretty desensitized to language, but hearing this word said so casually was beyond heavy. It was like getting a thumb in the eye accompanied by a kick in the juevos. The weirdest part was that as I spoke with the patron, it was obvious that their interest was genuine and they did not consider the word malicious.
Now, if you haven’t heard, Mark Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben has helped release a new version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the N word is replaced with the world “slave.”
This has generated a conversation that fascinates me. Mark Twain is my favorite author, and I think that Huckleberry Finn is his masterpiece. I also believe that if anything in literature is sacrosanct and should be left alone, it is Mark Twain. I am also not attached to the N Word and would be happy to see it go the way of the dodo. I think it’s poison.
Dr. Gribben stated that the revised book is the result of stories he heard in which teachers at various school levels were no longer teaching Huckleberry Finn because of the hurtful language. He felt that this move deprived students of reading one of the landmarks of American literature, if not the most important book produced by this country.
Hence, a classic, valuable book that can now be taught without the hurtful language.
Critics of the move suggest that by altering such a book, we no longer have the same book and students are not having the same experience that Twain intended as we engage with the text.
A note on Twain’s writing
As far as I know, I am one of the weirdos who has read every single word Mark Twain every published. He was a careful writer. Here’s my favorite quote from the man:
The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
In other words, Twain chose the words he did for a reason. The offensive word in question appears over 200 times in the text, and accurately reflected the times. Twain was an abolitionist and he did not mince words when it came to his defense of the rights of non-whites in this country.
He did not use the word as a slur, but as an indictment of a societal norm that appalled him.
But does that matter today?
The thought that the book as originally intended could disappear from schools saddens me, but if an African-American is hurt by the word I would never, ever tell them they were wrong or start spouting off about what Twain’s intentions were.
A suggestion made on the BBC World Have Your Say program was that perhaps the book in its original form should simply be aimed at older students. Maybe it should be taken from elementary or Junior High or High Schools. That makes some sense to me.
It’s a fascinating issue and I think there are so many sides to it that just about everyone involved can be right in some way.
What do you think? Should the book be altered? Taught later? Should Twain’s intentions matter to today’s readers who find it offensive? Is it the same book with the changes?
I’m going to get a copy so I can read the changed edition. I’ll let you know how it goes.
PS: on the subject, if you’re looking for African American Fiction to read, that link will get you to the goods.