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How Dare You Censor the, Um, 'N-Word'

Twain's classic 'Huckleberry Finn' gets cleaned up, and maybe it's time.

Mark Leiren-Young 7 Jan

Mark Leiren-Young is the writer and director of the widely praised The Green Chain. Mark's also a regular contributor to The Tyee. For more on Mark, visit his website.

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning." -- Mark Twain 

"Why Whitewash n-word from Huck Finn?" asked the headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Los Angeles Times headline read: "The expurgated 'Huckleberry Finn'."

The headline on the New York Times education blog boldly wondered, "Should the Racial Epithets Be Removed from 'Huck Finn'?"

Every Canadian headline I found online -- and most of the other American ones from mainstream print, radio and TV news outlets -- also used "the n-word."

And then the authors of the articles, columns and editorials usually went on to either personally accuse, or find experts to accuse, NewSouth Publishing of cowardice, censorship, or political correctness for replacing the word "nigger" with "slave" in their new edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- often without ever managing to include an uncensored version of the censored word in their own stories.

USA Today didn't just duck the word in the headline they spelt it "N ----" in their article.

An interview with the new edition's editor on National Public Radio's All Things Considered managed to completely dance around speaking the word he'd cut.

The Chicago Tribune referred to the replaced word as, "a slur against blacks." Their story quoted Barbara Jones, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, attacking the new edition as "censorship" while saying, "Twain used the 'n-word' deliberately because he hated racism and he hated slavery." I could be wrong here, but while there are apparently 219 uses of the word "nigger" in Huck Finn I'm pretty sure there's not a single case of Twain ever using, "the n-word."

Too vile, and distracting, to utter

As a writer and anti-censorship activist I'm trying desperately to muster outrage over the NewSouth edition, and instead finding myself convinced the media skittishness makes a pretty strong case for the unkind cuts. So most American newspapers won't print the word, but the publishers of a book for middle school kids are censors?

The "n-word" was pretty much created in 1995 during the O.J. Simpson murder trial, when one of the detectives who arrested Simpson was discredited as a witness because the uncensored word was part of his vocabulary. According to the New York Times, one of the prosecutors, Christopher Darden, declared, "the 'N-word' was so vile that he would not utter it."

It wasn't long before mainstream media outlets took the same approach in their coverage of the trial. After that, the unsanitized version of the "n-word" became so toxic Americans have actually lost their jobs over their use of the word "niggardly" -- which has absolutely no linguistic relationship whatsoever to "nigger" and means "miserly" or, you know, kinda Shylocky.

That's why I once censored Mark Twain -- in a play I wrote about censorship.

In the first draft of my play, Shylock -- a one-man show about a Jewish actor accused of anti-Semitism for playing Shakespeare's notorious moneylender -- my character, Jon Davies, was rattling off incidents of censorship that he found absurd, including one referencing Twain. "Mark Twain, one of the most liberal writers of his era, is now a bigot because he used the word 'nigger' in Huckleberry Finn -- a book about tolerance, but why should that matter?"

Not long before our premiere at Bard on the Beach I decided to swap the real word for, "the n-word."

My director, John Juliani, and my star, David Berner, were vehement that I shouldn't make the change. They felt I was wimping out on defending Twain. I absolutely agreed.

But I didn't cut the word because I was afraid of using it in the play, I cut the word because the play wasn't about Twain -- or the politics of a single word -- and if I'd kept it in, I was fairly sure that as soon as Berner delivered that line that whatever spell he'd managed to create would be broken as audience members started muttering, "Did he just say... he didn't just say... well, he was quoting Twain."

I suspected that the word was such a flashpoint that everything else about the show would have been lost in a debate over whether it was okay to quote what is arguably the great American novel.

Twain and his early critics

One editorial I read about this controversy suggested that Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens) would roll over in his grave at the changes. As someone who has read a few Twain bios, I suspect he'd be doing more contortions in his coffin over the fact that his royalties have expired at a time when he's still making headlines and his biography's on the bestseller’s list.

I'm also not sure he'd be thrilled to discover why Huck Finn ranks number 14 on the American Library Association list of most banned books of the decade and was one of the top five banned books of the '90s.

Huck Finn was first banned by the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts in 1885 -- the year after it was published -- for "coarse language" and being too colloquial. It was offensive because it sounded real. The author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, declared that, "If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses he had best stop writing for them." Those are the types of censors a writer can take pride in. But today the book is being pulled from schools simply because it uses a word that most American newspapers are afraid to print.

The editor/censor of the new edition, Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar, writes in the edition's introduction that he made the change after discovering how many schools were pulling the book from their reading lists because, "this single debasing label is overwhelming every other consideration about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn."

Oh yeah, he also turned "Injun Joe" into "Indian Joe," replaced half breed with "half-blood" and Becky Thatcher is now elected president. Okay, maybe that last bit won't happen until the next edition.

Classic argument

In his book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, author Randall Kennedy defended Twain's use of the "troublesome" word.

It's a fascinating debate. But if American students can't get past the word to actually read the sentences and the paragraphs, I'm not sold this is the second coming of the patron saint of censorship, Henrietta Bowdler. As long as the change is acknowledged I suspect subbing in the word "slave" will have the same impact as bleeping movies and cable TV shows. Anybody half-bright will know exactly what was being said and anyone intrigued enough by what they're reading will track down the original.

And I'd hope that any half-bright teacher would tell students what has been censored and why -- which Gribben addresses in his introduction -- and then their classes can have that discussion separately from their conversations about the book.

Twain's arguably the most important author in American history -- and writers from Hemingway to Vonnegut have made the argument. Hemingway believed this was America's most important novel. But nobody's paying attention to the f#$%ing story anymore.

Years ago, I attended a matinee production of my play Blueprints from Space. Several hundred high school kids were completely lost in the world. Then one of the characters said "bullshit." Almost every kid in the audience laughed, snickered or giggled, looked to their friends, looked to their teachers and the actors continued playing out a scene the audience was no longer watching.

I asked the director if this happened often.

Yes, she said, "every show."

"Cut it," I said.

"But no one has complained," she said. "And it's the right word for the character."

"Yes, it is," I said. "But the author would rather the audience paid attention to the play."

Unfortunately, without the Gribbenization, Huck Finn seems destined to become a classic -- which Twain once defined as, "a book which people praise and don't read."  [Tyee]

Read more: Education

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