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Why the n-word should stay in ‘Huck Finn’…

January 5, 2011 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( New South Books press people had barely sent word out that the editors would remove any mention of the n-word from their upcoming edition of Mark Twain’s immortal classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when the backlash began. Critics are calling it censorship, a slap at freedom of speech, and a gross distortion of Twain’s intent. Twain’s goal was to show the ugliness an evilness of slavery and to do that he had to use the rawest racist language of his day. This guaranteed that the book and the language he used would sooner or later draw anger and protests. It’s certainly had its colossal share of both over the years.

Legions of teacher’s groups, library associations and school district administrators have agonized over Twain’s use of racist language in the book, particularly the n-word. They’ve put out manifestos, curriculum aides, and special texts guiding teachers on how to deal with Twain’s word usage. Twain probably would have found this amusing, and with good reason. He got it right then and a century and a quarter after publication of Huck Finn it’s still proper to use the n-word and all the other vulgar and crude racial epithets and language that he used in Huck Finn and his other writings that touched on race to make his protest against the vileness of racial bigotry.

But in the era of political and racial correctness run amok that won’t cut it. Excising the n-word from Twain’s classic is not simply a case of trying to conform to the times, nor is it a case as Twain’s defenders say of censorship, though a strong argument can be made for that, an argument that I happen to agree with. The real issue, without contradiction, has always been that a white man writing more than a century ago can be called on the carpet for using a word deemed racially offensive and inappropriate in modern times. But those who aren’t white, aren’t literary icons, and did not write a century ago still get a pass when they use the vile racial loaded words, especially the n-word, with abandon, and to add insult to it, go through hoops to justify the use of the language.

This was the case back in August when talk show host Laura Schlessinger got run out of radio Dodge when she had the temerity to spew the word to make the valid point that the word is just that a word and has no value or power to hurt, maim or defame other than what someone gives it. This is the precise point that the pack of black comedians and rappers that have virtually canonized the word make. They sprinkle the word throughout their rap lyrics and comedy lines; and black writers, and filmmakers go through lengthy gyrations to justify using the word.

N-word users and apologists say that the more a black person uses the word, the less offensive it becomes. They claim that they are cleansing the word of its negative connotations so that racists can no longer use it to hurt blacks. Comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory had the same idea some years ago when he titled his autobiography, Ni**ger. Black writer, Robert DeCoy also tried to apply the same racial shock therapy to whites when he titled his novel, The Ni**er Bible.

A handful of black activists have waged war against the n-word. Their target is those rappers and writers that have turned the n word into a lucrative growth industry. They have been the exception. Blacks have been more than willing to give other blacks that use the word a pass. The indulgence sends the subtle signal that the word is hardly the earth-shattering, illegitimate word that black and white n-word opponents brand it.

Twain had no such compunction about using the word and what today is deemed racially inappropriate language in his magnificent classic. A classic that captured for all time in all it beauty, human warmth, as well as ugliness and brutality the relationship between a young white kid and an escaped slave “Ni**er Jim.” That term interestingly never appears in the novel but was used by twentieth century critics, including Leslie Fiedler, Norman Mailer, and Russell Baker in discussing the work. They were not called on the carpet for inserting “ni**er” in front of Jim.

Twain could not have conveyed that sentiment and that part of America’s shameful racial legacy by sugar coating the language, and guarding his vocabulary against racial epithets. In doing that Huck Finn with all of its racial crudities provides insight into a time and place in America that should not be forgotten. To sanitize any part of that to conform in timeless literature to an artificial and hypocritical standard of official civility is a far bigger absurdity than Twain’s use of the n-word. Keep the n-word in Huck Finn.

Written By CTA

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