Friday, January 7, 2011

Twain, Huck Finn, New South Publications, Nigger Jim, and the whitewash of history as it may be found offensive.

I've recently been disgusted by New South Publications new edition of the Twain Classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where the words "nigger" and "injun" are removed. Nigger is replaced by the word slave as that somehow means the same thing with the same connotation. This is exactly what shouldn't happen. I have my many reasons and have been all over this blogosphere commenting about it, incensed, and giving it a lot of thought. Today I happened upon this blog...
Et tu, Mr Destructo?
It makes the argument against removal of harmful words from great texts very well and should be a must read for everyone that reads this blog. I agree with it in it's entirety. What follows are simply additional thoughts related to the matter at hand. I will get back to posting poetry very soon; it is all related though, isn't it?

I feel strongly about language and that language should never be cheated or cheapened. I wrap myself in the skin of language, it's importance to me can never be overstated. In writing I have yet to use the epithet "nigger" but know that someday it may come up and I would hope that I wouldn't hesitate to use it properly with the correct intent - because it is intent that gives any word it's power - a word on it's own is a collection of letters that sits meaningless.
I've often wanted to have a particular bumper sticker made and may do so during the next election cycle - I want it to simply say "Abortion" - nothing else. This word alone can mean many things and has several connotations, the ire it receives is astounding to me. The word alone is not an opinion but that is what people will ascribe to it and I revel in the reaction.
The word "nigger" is no different, only complicated by our shared history and that we do not want to own the pre-civil rights abuses but we must. We want to put the somewhat recent use of slavery as far away from us as we can and we mustn't - we should embrace our history, for good or ill, as our shared history. Then we can move forward together.

I have always ironically enjoyed fifties themed restaurants and can often be found asking where the "whites only" or "colored only" signs are or even ask to be seated in the whites only section. The related nostalgic experience excludes the actual past, I believe that this is a greater disservice. This is similar to when people talk about how the fifties or forties or - choose an era, were better in some way - more simple. Utter BS - selective memory and selective application of history is what that is. I point these things out to folks not to inflame but to enlighten and inform.

When did denying the past, obliterating it from our texts, do any good? Is the past not there to learn from, is the past not there and immutable.


  1. i'm not sure what is worse - the censorship of language or the attempt to diminish the sins of our past.

    i will admit, that word makes me flinch -- but that's a good thing...because what it represents should never be forgotten.

    a not-so-funny story - a fellow children's writer once submitted a non-fiction piece to a very popular children's magazine -- it wasn't accepted -- but not because of the quality of the writing, but because (it was explained in the rejection note) it was about pirates (it was about actual historical figures) -- because you know, pirates steal things and we musn't sully our children's minds with such things.


  2. So glad you posted this... May I link it to my FB..
    You have said everything i have been discussing the past day or so with associates and they agree.. we can not nor should not whitewash history or language. If I were a child of the 50's I'm quite certain I would have been raped, killed or at the very least ostracisized for my liberal view on humans.

    I could discuss this at great lengths, but I do believe you ahve covered the bases quite nicely!!

  3. Great point about the power of words. I think if you put a sticker on your car that said "Abortion" and nothing else, you'd get detractors from both sides accusing you of...I don't know, but I'm sure they'll come up with something. And you didn't even have to voice your opinion!

    I've used the word in my, I'm not going to write it here. I used it because it was appropriate for the characters and the book. I'd be horrified if people thought my using it there was racist, but I wouldn't remove it. Because, like I wrote, it was appropriate in the context.

    I wish people would stop hiding from the word. I'm not saying use it; I'm saying acknowledge its existence, its history, and maybe learn just why it's such a negative word.

    But, like you said, people enjoy going into those fifties diners.

  4. I enjoyed reading this post very much.
    I agree with you that times change along with the meaning of words, but classic literature aren't the same without those words.
    It's no secret that I am a great fan of classic children's books, and these words are commonplace there. They just don't read the same.
    "Abortion" or "Abort" mean lots of things to different people.

  5. I won't be allowing my children to read these modified versions of classic works, at least, not until they've read the original texts. Then they will be given the opportunity to learn how to appreciate the ramifications making these alterations has...
    Great post Jhon.

  6. Great comments!
    Lynne, go ahead and link or whatever you like!
    I simply can't imagine what good comes of disguising history in attempt to soften our children.
    Also, when discussing this with my retired teacher MIL - her first reaction was "He wasn't a slave."
    I can only hope that my language is never altered from it's written text if I were to write anything of greater note and notice. I think Twain would heartily agree that it is an abomination against his work, literature and society as a whole.

  7. A bumper sticker that says

    abortion nigger

    would ignite a hive of incendiary. emotional responses. Cannot imagine anything pretty would come of it.

    And a bumper sticker that says
    might push a neighbor to call in the dogs.

    Put your original copies of the classics in a secret hiding hole, they will be worth something provided we don't blow ourselves to smithereens.

  8. Thanks for the link to that, Jhon. That essay is the best I have seen to date. I enjoyed your additional thoughts as well.

    I understand exactly what you were saying in your thoughts on throwing the word 'abortion' on a bumper sticker. "This word alone can mean many things and has several connotations..." I had a co-worker from Sudan a few years back you noticed the word 'nigger' used somewhere and noted that the word meant absolutely nothing to hime and he did not take offense at it. He, and his country, have no historical experience with the word.

  9. We can't and shouldn't re-write history! I first read this book as a little kid, I loved it and didn't want to start using the the "offensive" words because of it.

    Injun Joe was probably the first literary character who scared the hell out of me.
    Native American Joe, just doesn't invoke the same feeling...

    The person and/or people behind this thing are fucking idiots...

  10. Hey man ... great commentary. I wrote an editorial for my paper about this very subject but the editor didn't get a chance to read it. rrrrrrrr. Anyway, I'm not down with it AT ALL and I think 'ol Samuel would be rolling in his grave

  11. Anybody who cares anything at all about writing should stand up and speak against this stupidity. I wouldn't say the n-word if my life depended on it (OK, maybe then...) but that doesn't mean it was common language in Mark Twain's day. Whitewashing fences? Sure. Whitewashing history? Let's leave that to people who have something to hide.

  12. For further reading I may suggest -


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