Censorship of “Nigger” Disrespects Twain

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M. White

New publications of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn sugar-coat the United States’ racist past.

Meredith White, Staff Writer

The publication of censored editions of Huckleberry Finn coincides with the release of Mark Twain’s autobiography commemorating the 100-year anniversary of his death. NewSouth publishers based in Alabama printed 7500 copies of Huckleberry Finn with the word “nigger” changed to “slave” and the word “injun” changed to “Indian” in February. The new copies are a product of an exaggerated 21st century political correctness and should not be put in circulation, let alone taught in schools in place of the original work.

Alan Gribben, a Mark Twain scholar and English professor at Auburn University at Montgomery, started the rally cry when Huckleberry Finn reached the dismal fourth position on the list of most banned books in U.S. schools. In an effort to keep Huckleberry Finn’s deserved place in high school curricula, Gribben advocated bowlderized volumes of the text as the most effective counterattack to preemptive censorship.

Teachers that eliminate Huckleberry Finn from the reading list are overlooking the broader messages of the novel and its historical perspective. These teachers should not be stocked with a more agreeable alternative, but should not teach the book at all.

“A significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers will welcome the option of an edition of Twain’s novels that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose it’s vitriol,” said Gribben.

The “vitriol” that Gribben cited is exactly the powerful, raw impact that Twain intended.

Stepping around the eggshells in the touchy matter of race, while politically correct, should not be a practice applied to literature that offers an accurate portrayal of American history.

The word “nigger” appears over 200 times in Twain’s work. Contrary to criticism that deplores the frequent reappearance as distracting, offensive, and erosive to the novel’s other messages, Twain’s gratuitous use is deliberate and provides valuable insight into the racism of the time.

“I wouldn’t avoid teaching it [the original],” said English teacher Karl Kosciuch. “I would instead try to put it in its historical context.”
Reading dialogue of young Huck tossing the word around nonchalantly when talking to pious old Aunt Sally exposes colloquium foreign to modern speakers.

“Anyone get hurt in the river?” Aunt Sally asks.  “No’m,” Huck says. “Killed a nigger.” Aunt Sally then responds, “Well it’s lucky because sometimes people do get hurt.”As one of the earliest and most revolutionary anti-racists to come out of the south, Twain’s excessive use of the word employs unmistakable irony.

If the story was written by a racist whose intent was to condone the validity of the word, the circumstances would be drastically different. Twain, however, is not trying to advance the truth of the matter, but rather, is realistically revealing a culture that existed.

“The censoring is in the name of political correctness. We cannot change the word, though, in an effort to no longer be embarrassed about the issues,” said Kosciuch. Nigger has been tagged as one of the most offensive words in the English language, particularly when used by a white person addressing a black person. Reading Huck’s lowlife, drunkard of a father call a freed slave who worked his way up to be a college professor and gained the right to vote a nigger should be unsettling and obviously immoral to readers. When read in the correct context, students should be discouraged from using the word.

Look no farther than rap artist Wiz Khalifa’s “Fly Niggas Do Fly Things” for evidence of the word nigger’s 21st century connotation. It is impossible for Mark Twain to have foreseen the double standard that would come to accompany the word over the next 100 years.  Publishers should not cater to students that cannot distinguish between modern slang and a racial slur with historical significance by expunging it altogether.

“On one hand I am against the concept of censoring. On the other hand, I self censor, because of the historical hurt the word has,” said Kosciuch. Readers should be held responsible to censor where they see fit. Publishers should not assume the responsibility, disabling the reader from having the freedom to see the original text.

“Students need to know that they are reading an authentic piece of art and not something manufactured by an Orwellian novel writing machine,” said Kosciuch. Gribben’s endeavor is an earnest effort to salvage Twain’s presence in modern schools. However, the all or nothing standard must be applied here. Settling for a compromise that involves tampering with an American classic does more wrong than justice.