Saturday, January 8, 2011

Whitewashing Twain


An Alabama-based publishing company will replace the n-word in The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn with the word "slave," and print Tom Sawyer without the term "Injun." Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben says replacing the words will allow more students to experience the classic books.

I have to say that my immediate reaction to this story was the same as almost everyone else's, this is to say my reaction was along the lines of WTF? What's next, taking the F-word out of Glengarry Glen Ross?

I immediately thought of Stephen Spielberg's lame move to edit the guns out of the cops hands in E.T., replacing them with walkie talkies.

Jason in St. Paul sums it up:

I'm a librarian. Your guest said that teachers found it difficult to introduce the book into their classes. But it's supposed to be difficult. Rewriting things like "Huck Finn" is the first step to rewriting history. What's next?

My thoughts had been along these lines; "the presence of this word will provide the teacher with an opportunity to have a real discussion of the history of race in this country."

The problem with that, as Professor Gribben pointed out, was that because of the word, many schools simply did not allow the book to be taught.

My 40 years of teaching the novels and my recent lecture tour, which took me to many libraries and communities last year, convinced me that, increasingly, public school teachers are finding it more and more uncomfortable to get these books into the classroom. And, in fact, if you consult the records of the American Library Association, you'll see that "Huckleberry Finn" is the fourth most-challenged book among the so-called classics of all time and that "Tom Sawyer" falls behind. I think it's 14th.

This has resulted in a situation where many school districts and many administrators and a growing number of teachers simply feel that they'll have to use other readings. That is a great shame, because these two are probably the most vibrant novels of the 19th century.

This is where I began to understand Professor Gribben's reasoning.

As a Mark Twain scholar Professor Gribben was confronted with the real problem of people not being able to get over that word and as a result banning the book from their school. The children who go to that school will not get to have that discussion at all.

So how do you get Huck Finn into those schools that have banned it because of it's gratuitous use of the N-word? Well, the first thing to do is to take out the offending word.

It's also worth noting that the Professor didn't do what we see on so many R movies that get shown on TV and replace an offending word with lollipop, or mother trucker. Words that don't bare any semblance to the original meaning of the offending language.

He replaced the "N-word" with "slave." Little, if any, context will be lost by this change. It's not like he entirely changed a character's moral compass by altering a sequence to imply that said character didn't shoot first. That would truly be a feat of unsurpassed hackery.

But Professor Gribben didn't do that.

The fifth season of South Park features an episode titled "It hit's the fan," where the word shit is used 200 times. The whole point of the episode is to use the word as much as possible, to the point that there is a counter in the upper right hand of the screen that keeps track of every time the word is seen or uttered, so that by the end of the episode the counter reads 200.

Changing the N-word to slave in Huck Finn would be like changing those 200 shits to craps. The edginess is certainly reduced, but little context is lost.


If you come across criticism of Professor Gribben's decision to edit Huck Finn, make a note of weather the author of the criticism uses the word to be edited or if that author refers to the word without actually using it as I have in this post. I have not seen a single critic of the Professor's who is actually willing to use the word and this I think is the whole point.

Of course there's also the Lenny Bruce approach to sensitive words:

Are there any niggers here tonight? Could you turn on the house lights, please, and could the waiters and waitresses just stop serving, just for a second? And turn off this spot. Now what did he say? "Are there any niggers here tonight?" I know there's one nigger, because I see him back there working. Let's see, there's two niggers. And between those two niggers sits a kyke. And there's another kyke- that's two kykes and three niggers. And there's a spic. Right? Hmm? There's another spic. Ooh, there's a wop; there's a polack; and, oh, a couple of greaseballs. And there's three lace-curtain Irish micks. And there's one, hip, thick, hunky, funky, boogie. Boogie boogie. Mm-hmm. I got three kykes here, do I hear five kykes? I got five kykes, do I hear six spics, I got six spics, do I hear seven niggers? I got seven niggers. Sold American. I pass with seven niggers, six spics, five micks, four kykes, three guineas, and one wop. Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it's the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness. Dig: if President Kennedy would just go on television, and say, "I would like to introduce you to all the niggers in my cabinet," and if he'd just say "nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger" to every nigger he saw, "boogie boogie boogie boogie boogie," "nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger" 'til nigger didn't mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.

No comments:

Post a Comment