Because words matter

I'm going to meander my way toward my point today, I think. Thank you for bearing with me.

In Orwell's "1984," there's a scene toward the end wherein Winston is faced with another man incarcerated with him in the Ministry of Love. The man is there because he failed in his job, which was to redact literature to suit the purposes of the Party. He left the word "God" in a poem, because there was simply no other word that would have made sense in its place. The desperate man couldn't make sense of nonsense.

Back in the real world, I own a copy of Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories." It is one of my favorite books in the whole world. I love it. My copy contains a publisher's note at the front, explaining that the edition contains Kipling's original language and was published thusly because it reflects the actual words of the author. (I'm paraphrasing a bit.) This note is there because, in one of the stories, the word "nigger" is used.

I plan to read all of these stories to the Critter when he is old enough for them, because they are charming and magical and some of my best childhood memories comprise having them read to me. When I get to the story that includes the word "nigger," I am going to explain to him that it is a word that was used a lot when Kipling wrote the book. I will explain that the word is an awful word that people shouldn't use, because it was meant to insult and oppress black people back when white people thought they had the right to do so. I will explain that using that word today would be very wrong, and I would be very angry to hear the Critter ever use it.

What I won't do is pretend that it isn't there.

I mention all of this as preamble to sharing my thoughts about this:
Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic by most any measure—T.S. Eliot called it a masterpiece, and Ernest Hemingway pronounced it the source of "all modern American literature." Yet, for decades, it has been disappearing from grade school curricula across the country, relegated to optional reading lists, or banned outright, appearing again and again on lists of the nation's most challenged books, and all for its repeated use of a single, singularly offensive word: "nigger."

Twain himself defined a "classic" as "a book which people praise and don't read." Rather than see Twain's most important work succumb to that fate, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the "n" word (as well as the "in" word, "Injun") by replacing it with the word "slave."
This is so very wrong-headed.

First of all, the two words don't mean the same thing. One is a slur, and another is a social condition, albeit an awful one. One has no use other than as a term of abuse specific to one kind of person, while the other could be used to describe anyone who is in a state enslavement. They do not communicate the same concepts and replacing one with the other is intellectually sloppy and does naive readers a disservice.

I will abashedly admit that I myself have not read "Huckleberry Finn." (As chance would have it, my ignorance of Twain's writing was a subject of much surprised parental conversation over the recent holidays.) But my understanding is that Twain's use of the word "nigger" is not for the purposes of perpetuating the degradation of black people, but as a reflection of the language and attitudes of the society he is depicting. Isn't one of the primary reasons for introducing children to great literature to instill the ability to read critically and with discernment, to understand the layers of meaning in written communication? By depriving them of books that challenge their assumptions and experiences, are we not making them less able to function as mature and intelligent adults?

And even if Twain were using "nigger" with approval, the approach to objectionable speech isn't to silence it or pretend it doesn't exist. It is to thoughtfully and carefully explain what makes the speech objectionable, to counter it with better, more convincing and moral speech. It's not to take an eraser to it.

I obviously object to Gribben's efforts, and hope this edition dies a quick death. But I believe his intentions were good, and meant to counter the ridiculous exclusion of one of America's great novels from our schools. Our history and culture are complicated, and contain much that is ugly and troubling and difficult. Our children deserve nothing less than an honest understanding of this reality, and they deserve to read the literature that reflects it.

1 comment:

  1. You know, I've run into this same wall in conversation a couple of times lately - in reference to True Grit and A Chorus Line, of all things - and you've done an excellent job of articulating what's bothered me: that there is a problem with dismissing art on the sole objection of its reflecting the time and attitudes it portrays. However offensive to our Modern Sensibilities they might be, this does not mean the work has nothing to offer us.

    I sometimes feel that both sides of our currently polarized society have lost the ability to do other than summarily accept or reject, whole cloth. Whatever happened to nuance? Is it that our post-post-Modern, numbed-to-shock-content mindset has rendered us incapable of believing that anyone might write/create/include something objectionable for any other reason than the prurient/sensational? Have we so far lost our ability to think critically about ANYTHING?