Next month will see the release of NewSouth Books’ Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The Texts of His Companion Boy Books, which collects the two 19th century classics and revises them to remove an offensive word that, for years now, has been the cause of protests against teaching the books in schools.
The word?: ‘nigger.*’
In NewSouth’s edition, which was revised by Mark Twain scholar Dr. Alan Gribben, all instances of the word ‘nigger’ have been replaced by the word ‘slave’, as has the word ‘injun’, a derogatory term for Native Americans.
Gribben, who is passionate about Twain’s works, told Publishers Weekly he’s not trying to render these works “colorblind,” but that “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”
Because people have protested the teaching of these books in schools, citing offensive language, Gribben thought revising it to remove these words would be the best way to get the books back in schools. Basically, he feels the teaching of the censored books is better than them not being taught at all. Gribben said, “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs.”
Of course, there are purists who oppose the revising of the books, such as Twain scholar Thomas Wortham, who told PW that Gribben’s censored version won’t “challenge children [and their teachers] to ask, ‘Why would a child like Huck use such reprehensible language?'”
I understand what Gribben is trying to do, and I don’t fault him for it. He’s a 69-year-old academic who loves Twain’s works and, at this point, just wants the books back in schools and feels this is the only option to get it done. He’s not coming at it from a malicious standpoint or as a way to withhold knowledge from children or discourage free-thinking.
On the other hand, our world has become too politically correct and to go back and change a classic piece of literature to adhere to today’s moral standards is preposterous. The fact that the use of the word ‘nigger’ automatically renders the novels “racist” is absurd; the novels are pure anti-racist sentiment. Huck Finn’s repeated use of the word would not be uncommon for an uneducated orphan boy from the South during the period of slavery in the United States. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the young Huck initially has the common prejudice against blacks and slaves of the time, but the more he learns about his travel companion — the runaway slave Jim — the more he comes to understand the black man as a fellow human being and this changes Huck’s perspective. Even though his whole life he’s been taught to think negatively towards black people, Huck’s experiences with Jim steer him to make decisions based on his own conscience. That’s the lesson. A “nigger” is considered to be someone who is ignorant, so it’s ironic that Huck uses the word numerous times in regards to others when initially he is the ignorant one.
Does the excessive use of racial slurs make Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn an emotionally difficult read? Perhaps. But it was not written for today’s readers; it was written in a time where this is how people spoke and this was the mindset of those characters. Twain’s anti-racist statement is what should be taught to students. I’m not saying read the book to 6-year-olds, but I see no reason why this shouldn’t be taught in high schools and why teachers shouldn’t encourage teenage students to analyze the racism of the time.
There are plenty of other classic novels that use offensive language, including the N-word, such as Richard Wright’s Native Son and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; however, I wouldn’t want those to be whitewashed in the same way that NewSouth’s edition of Twain’s works are now.
I feel that although the word is jarring to read (and even more so to hear), I think it’s better to expose students to the truth of our history and give them something to think about as it pertains to modern-day society. It’s not as though racism currently does not exist in our culture, because it does. Perhaps, like Huck, a student who has misconceptions of other races might be compelled to analyze their own thinking after having read the word in the book over 200 times.
Those adults against students being exposed to racist slurs in literature, maybe instead of having the books removed, should talk about it with their children at home, because in the real world, these same children will surely be exposed to racism and other hatreds. Why not arm them with knowledge against it?
Again, I understand Gribben’s mission — but instead of going through these works with an eraser, why not instead fight for the right for these books to be taught as is?
[*While I agree that this is a nasty racial slur, the purpose of publishing it within this article is to accurately report the issue and to provide an educated discussion of the topic: Should classic literature be altered?]