Is C-wording the N-word F-worded up? (Huck Finn now sanitized for your protection)

Don't miss Nina Shen Rastogi's excellent article in Slate exploring the controversy over Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The Texts of His Companion Boy Books. This new version of the classic novels has been purged of the words that keep Huck high on the banned books lists from year to year: "nigger" and "injun". Some are chaffing at the idea of censoring Mark Twain, but Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben pragmatically told the NY Times, "I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone."

Rastogi quotes Toni Morrison's response to the banning of the book...
"It struck me as a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution. A serious comprehensive discussion of the term by an intelligent teacher certainly would have benefited my eighth-grade class and would have spared all of us (a few blacks, many whites—mostly second-generation immigrant children) some grief. Name calling is a plague of childhood and a learned activity ripe for discussion as soon as it surfaces."
...then goes on to make the inarguable point that
"...classrooms — and the school systems they're embedded in — aren't always idealized teaching spaces: One too-graphic sex scene in an otherwise age-appropriate book, and an administrator may decide to nix it. Or a teacher may swap it for a book that's less likely to get them angry phone calls from parents."
I would love to see Twain's books freely taught in schools, but do the "stories stand alone" without the unmistakable context of those racial epithets? Is it healthy for us as a society to look away from the evolution of both language and ideology? Retouching history prevents us from learning from it. Blithely Febreezing "nigger" from our past makes it easier to say "fag" now.

Three years ago, I devoted some rant space here on the blog to the cosmetic surgery performed on Margaret Mitchell's characters in sequels to Gone With the Wind. From Rhett is no gentleman and frankly, my dear, I DO give a damn!:
Margaret Mitchell was a product of the time and place in which she lived, and Gone With the Wind is her work. The hijacking of her characters decades after her death whether it's for the benign purpose of masking her racism with lemony freshness or with the more pragmatic goal of cranking out an instant bestseller - is almost as offensive to me as Mitchell's flattering portrayal of the KKK as gallant gentlemen defending their Heaven-blessed way of life. I think there's great historical and literary value in a book that demonstrates how deeply ingrained that thinking was (and still is for some) in Southern culture. The mamby-pambification of Rhett Butler in these sappy sequels, no matter how well written, is the rape of a great book.
I've been laboring through the hefty Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, laughing out loud at times, occasionally shaking my head, and constantly being amazed. I think Mark Twain was an extraordinarily forward-thinking guy who knew exactly what those words meant then and strongly suspected what they would mean in the future.

Comments

First off, I hereby nominate this for best blog post title of the decade. Made me laugh, anyway.

I do think its effed-up. One giant teachable moment undone. Sure, there is the argument that few districts will allow the original to be taught in its classroom because the squawk factor from a few parents is too much to deal with, but censoring the text isn't the answer. Perhaps making the effort to educate the parents along with their children is.

Great post!
Suzan Harden said…
Joni, thank you for once again re-affirming my decision to homeschool.

And while Colleen has a great idea in educating the parents, the parents that sqawk aren't the ones that want to be educated.
First of all, I just stumbled upon your blog and love it! I agree with you completely on this post.

When I was young I read Huck Finn in school and enjoyed it so much that I read Tom Sawyer next. Our teacher explained to us the background of the time period and how certain words were used then, but should not be used today. I also read Gone with the Wind in two days when I was around 13 years old (couldn't put that large book down!). I loved it and can not imagine anyone changing it.

It is important for students to understand the way people thought in different time periods to gain a human perspective of what they learn in history class. It is one thing learning about the Civil War and racism from a teacher, and completely different to read a book that shows the attitudes and perspectives of the time. Look at the popularity of the Diary of Anne Frank. Let students read these books as they were made and show them how it relates to the world the author lived in. Censoring words to neutralize them is like erasing a part of history.
I actually have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, as a writer and as an idealistic teacher, I hate this approach, and I agree with so many that sanitizing really isn't the way to go. BUT the primary problem with Huckleberry Finn is that school districts require it to be taught far too early for students (especially students these days) to "get" the irony and the social context. You have to have a really good teacher who can break it down and help the kids not to take reading the book as a license to start slurring each other. There's a great book of essays about whether or not to teach Huck Finn PERIOD, and I found the whole volume riveting. I came into it thinking "of course! We have to teach it! It has so many great lessons!" But after reading the book, I realized that the sad reality is that so many teachers these days can't be trusted to handle the discussion well or to be sensitive to when it's gone too far. When I was in the elementary and middle schools with WITS, I saw racism from TEACHERS and it was rampant. It's very sad that this is the case, but in some districts it is.

My feeling is that dumbing it down for CHILDREN is wrong, because these days, I don't really think the book is best taught to children anyway. I think it should hit kids in late middle school or even high school, when they can begin to deal with the intellectual issues the book raises. I think that's more the problem here than the word itself--that and (sadly)the rampant incompetence of teachers.

I also think it's really important here to hear from the black community on this one. I know what Toni Morrison says, but I have seen other black leaders who are FOR this edition, and who have discussed the negative effects that reading the original had on them at a certain point in their developments. I can't help but notice that most of the loudest voices against this edition have been from those with white skin.
Mylène said…
Take out the n-word, and the miracle of the novel--that a white character who knows no other discursive universe than a racist one actually comes to see a black character as a human being--is robbed of its force. Period. Sometimes a little literary criticism is more than just a little literary criticism. This is not just about teachers, students, etc. This is about what the novel DOES, and HOW it does it.

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