No ‘nigger’ allowed in new Twain

By David Farside

Jan. 11th, 2011

The term “nigger” caused quite an uproar when Auburn University professor Alan Gribben announced he is publishing sanitized editions of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The new publication will substitute what Gribben calls racially sensitive language and will replace the word “nigger” with the word “slave.”

In an interview with CBS, Gribben said the new edition would “enable us to set this inflammatory racial epithet aside and begin to address the greatness of Twain’s works.” Currently, Twain’s description of Finn’s Mississippi River adventure is not taught in most public schools because Twain uses the n-word more than 200 times.

Gribben hopes his new edition will encourage more school districts to purchase his own clean version, allowing teachers to share one of the greatest classics written by an American writer with their students. Aside from his financial profit, Gribben might have good intentions; however, do we really need to edit out one of the most significant words in Twain’s book written over a hundred years ago? I don’t think so.

As a storyteller, Mark Twain didn’t use the word “nigger” in a pejorative manner. It was a colloquial expression used at the time to identify blacks in the south — not just black slaves. In his personal narratives and conversations he referred to blacks as “negroes.”

Twain used the n-word to accent the difference between the kindness, affection, trust and friendship of a white boy for a black slave and the mob rule of hate, prejudice, discrimination and segregation in the South.

He uses the provocative word to intentionally build empathy for Finn and disgust for the inhumane treatment of all blacks in both the North and South. The n-word draws the reader into the time period of the story, shaping the framework for the interaction between the characters. Replacing the n-word for slave would re-shape the intent of Mark Twain’s story.

It has always bemused me how a word of Spanish derivation meaning black has caused so much controversy. Throughout the years, within the black community, blacks have always called each other “niggers” and not always in a negative connotation. But if a white person calls them the same name it is a racist slur or considered racial discrimination. Of course, using their favorite expression to identify themselves as black, they manage to verbally accuse each other of having some kind of incestuous relationship with their own mother. If a white called them the same name it would be called defamation of character.

As a boy around Huckleberry Finn’s age, I remember the first time I was called “a cripple” with pejorative intent. It didn’t bother me because I am a cripple. Now society uses the polite word handicapped to describe physical limitations. Why? You can also use “handicapped” pejoratively.

Should we also protect the young impressionable and delicate minds of students by replacing words like jap with Japanese, Nazi with German, chink with Chinese, spic with Spanish and wetback with Hispanic in our history books because they are subjectively considered negative rather than descriptive words?

Society has developed some kind of paranoia associated with the n-word when it became a national euphemism during the 1995 murder trial of O.J. Simpson. Detective Mark Fuhrman, a white-skinned Los Angeles policeman and key witness in the trial, was accused of racial profiling because he used the n-word during a research session with a screenplay writer in 1985. The press, taking it upon themselves to edit Fuhrman’s use of the word “nigger,” replaced it using “n-word.”

Years ago, we watched minstrel shows on the stages of New York City. White entertainers painted their faces black and in a creative musical, artistic and comedic style to entertain and educate the public about the hardships, lifestyles and human misery experienced by black slaves in the South. A similar format performed by all white entertainers was called vaudeville. Over the years the minstrels actually contributed to the gradual acceptance of blacks in segments of our society.

My generation always had a saying: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me.” But in wanting to insulate personal sensitivities from the brunt of name calling, we cannot set standards on free speech or limit the collective freedom of artistic expression.

By not allowing the term “nigger” and altering Twain’s linguistic style of narrative intent just to satisfy a personal conservative distaste for one word of the English language is censoring what we read and revoking creative license.

You have to wonder what the next great sanitized “edit” will be. Never mind, I know the answer! The bigoted Tea Party Republicans’ new edition of the U.S. Constitution will read like a window sign in a Georgia restaurant many years ago: “No niggers allowed.”

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “No ‘nigger’ allowed in new Twain”

  1. Dr. Lewis Rauchmantel Says:

    We have two questions here that should not be confused. One question concerns the censorship of classic literature to fit the prejudices of the present time. I don’t like that idea at all. However, the second question is whether or not a book containing racially offensive expressions is suitable for use in schools below the college level. I would agree that Mark Twain is not appropriate for a high school class in his original form. He’s not the only one. There are a great many books that are not suitable for high school kids. This does not mean that they are bad books. But some things in life are best left until we are adults.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: