Slippery slopes: The Great Huck Finn Debacle

By Melanie Yarbrough

Censorship is back in the limelight. I’m not talking about WikiLeaks or any of its backlash, but one that’s been discussed in the literary world for half a century. (You know it’s political when Colbert’s covering it.)

I was talking to a friend as I wrote this, and I told her I was struggling with it. It feels too big, I said. There are so many things I want to talk about. She said I was over thinking it.

But am I? Many people, including those at NewSouth Books publishers, have their personal and idyllic reasons for either changing the 219 instances of “nigger” to “slave,” and the rest of us have our personal or idyllic reasons for not. When I first heard about the whole thing, my immediate response was, “No, absolutely not.” But it isn’t that simple, is it?

I liken it to the absurd yet preserved belief of a fraction of the planet that the Holocaust never happened. We are a species of ideas. The tragedies in our history are usually accompanied by a very convincing and deeply rooted belief, an idea that becomes truth for a population and puts them at war with the other side of that idea. Which brings us to the purpose that books have served: They are the purveyors of those ideas, of those beliefs. As a friend of mine likes to say, books are thought explorations. And though they often delve into the unreal or surreal, stories offer comments on the world at large, whether it’s the world in which they were written, or the world that came before or the world their current world is headed.

Altering – no, erasing – the ugly portions of those worlds has a larger effect than simply making discussion of that world more comfortable. As University of Virginia professor and Twain scholar Stephen Railton notes, “The language depicts America’s past and the revised book is not being true to the period in which Twain was writing.” Rather than supporting the quick fix, Railton plans to released an unaltered version that instead includes context for exploration into the treatment of racism and slavery in the book, adding, “If we can’t do that in the classroom, we can’t do that anywhere.”

As the fourth most banned book in the United States, it’s nothing new that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn makes people uncomfortable. The danger does not lie in the word that causes an upset in the entertainment industry as much as in the literary world, but in the crippling fear of facing it. Literature, least of all Twain’s, is not meant to pacify. If we are looking for comfort or a more swallowable version of our history, perhaps we should be looking to the Chicken Soup series rather than our country’s greatest satirist.

It’s true, we’ve come a long way. A word that was once so integrated into American conversation now causes grimaces and strongly-worded letters to school boards and congressmen and women. But what do we expect to happen once, if ever, that word disappears? Steve Almond talks about the recent assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords over at The Rumpus, and touches on a relevant distinction between the past and the present:

Sure, there were demagogues back in the olden days. But they enjoyed the latitude of a nation whose virulent forms of hatred were still sanctioned. White men were unquestionably in charge. They were allowed to discriminate, spared the anxieties of a true meritocracy.

Then came abolition and war and suffrage and civil rights. The bigotry had to become clannish, covert. The feelings didn’t disappear. They migrated. They had to go somewhere.

Silencing the voices of our history that make us uncomfortable today will do nothing but damage. We cannot erase the unjust aspects of our history without erasing the sacrifices and selflessness of those who fought to propel us forward.

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4 thoughts on “Slippery slopes: The Great Huck Finn Debacle

  1. thenerdynegress says:

    This post took the words right out of my mouth. Well done.

  2. Joe says:

    Well said. This has been making me uncomfortable as well, and my first reaction, like yours, was “absolutely not”. I honestly still feel that way. I’ve listened to the arguments on the other side, but my heart just knows that censorship of any type is wrong. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and we can’t protect our children by censoring the truth.

    Personally, I think we underestimate our children. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are certainly suitable for teenagers, and maybe even pre-teens (I’m not an educator, so I can’t say for certain). How can these children learn what is and what isn’t appropriate if they’re not even allowed access to the language necessary to learn those distinctions. How can they learn that certain words are racist or offensive if they have no exposure to those words whatsoever. The kids who will use these terms offensively will find them anyway, because they’re learning that behavior from home.

    I don’t want to right an essay here in your comments, so I’ll stop there. This is an issue that has really raised my ire, but in a way, I’m glad that it’s happening, because it brings the issue to the forefront so we all can talk about it. I do know this: lying and deceiving our children and young adults is the worst way to handle any matter.

  3. Agreed. Mike and I were talking about this, and like he said, the language in that book creates a perfect “teachable moment,” or “expectation failure” where the students must confront their preconceptions about history, language and what literature is “supposed” to do in the modern world.

    And this?

    “Substituting the word “slave” for the n-word is a step in the right direction. It takes the emotion out of racism and reduces it to a cold fact, which makes it easier to ignore and forget…We need rid ourselves, and more importantly our children, of all words that correlate to any dark times, personal or historical. ”

    I don’t think I have words to describe how wrong that is…

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