Thursday, September 13, 2012

Censoring the N-Word

Last week I watched a video of a college class about the N-word in literature. (The lecture title uses that euphemism.) The professor focused on UNCLE TOM’S CABIN and HUCKLEBERRY FINN, especially the latter. Have you heard about the new edition of HUCKLEBERRY FINN one publisher is producing, in which the N-word has been deleted and replaced? You’ll never guess what word is being inserted in its place—“slave”! Even granting the wisdom of this self-censorship (more about that below), “slave” is a misguided, clunky choice. It’s not a synonym for the offensive word and, in fact, would be inaccurate through most of the novel, because at the end we learn runaway slave Jim has actually been freed already without his knowledge. There are respectable synonyms this misguided publisher could substitute, such as “colored” or “Negro” to reflect polite language at the time of the story, or “black” if the editors thought the other two terms sounded too outdated. Leaving aside the fact that the action does take place in the distant past, which is kind of the point of reading the fiction of a previous century.

Whom does the publisher think it’s protecting with this change? Children? As one of the students in the class mentioned, Mark Twain himself said he didn’t intend the book to be read by children. (In that case, why did he market it as a sequel to TOM SAWYER, definitely a boys’ novel? Oh, well.) I agree with what seemed to be the consensus of the class, that anyone mature enough to read HUCKLEBERRY FINN should recognize the N-word as part of the dialect of the era. That’s especially important because this novel was one of the first written in dialect rather than formal English, a technique that subjected Twain to criticism in his own time. While at some points in the story the N-word comes across as derogatory, often it’s simply the way Huck Finn talks. He’s an abused, impoverished boy who doesn’t know any better. The word contributes to his characterization.

More important, substituting a less offensive word would soften and sanitize a situation that is MEANT to give offense. The story highlights the evils and absurdities of slavery in both major and minor ways. For instance, there’s a casual throwaway sentence early in the book that explains how a man’s son and his dog would be named (John Smith, Rover Smith) as opposed to the way his slave would be spoken of (Smith’s Jim). In naming conventions, the dog has a higher status than the slave. Deleting the N-word would misrepresent the pre-Civil-War culture Twain wants to reveal.

Interestingly, as some comments on the video noted, nowadays the word has become so taboo in polite conversation that many people hear it only in the context of gangsta rap. Rather than finding the N-word shockingly offensive, some younger readers might need an explanation of how derogatory it was in its historical context. For those readers it’s analogous, although harsher, to the way we no longer understand the shock George Bernard Shaw expected his audience to feel when Liza Doolittle said “bloody” in public. All these facets of language and culture comprise part of what teaching a work of literature from a past century is supposed to accomplish. Why adulterate the book’s teachable moments? What’s the point of offering readers a classic novel if they don’t receive what the author created?

It's been said that the past is a different country. Literature of earlier periods helps us imaginatively enter those alien worlds. In my opinion, altering older literature to conform to our view of the world defeats the purpose of reading it.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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