I’d thought it was a hoax, but hey, I’ve been wrong before. In an upcoming edition of Huckleberry Finn, to be published by NewSouth Books in Alabama, all instances of “nigger” and “injun” will be removed, thanks to Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben of Aubern University. This is so that teachers who “would love to teach this novel but feel [they] can’t do it anymore” can teach it, all sanitized-like. “Gribben said that he grew up never hearing the N-word and that while reading the novel aloud during his 20 years of teaching he replaced it with ‘slave.’”
That’s right: slave is the new N-word. (I assume “injun” will be replaced with “oppressed indigenous population.”)
This is so painfully wrong. Changing offensive words from a classic novel — or any novel — is more than censorship: it’s purposefully irresponsible. Or, if you prefer, willfully stupid. This is summed up beautifully by Dr. Sarah Churchwell, senior lecturer in US literature and culture at the University of East Anglia, who said “the development made her ‘incandescent’ with anger”:
“The fault lies with the teaching, not the book. You can’t say ‘I’ll change Dickens so it is compatible with my teaching method’. Twain’s books are not just literary documents but historical documents, and that word is totemic because it encodes all of the violence of slavery. The point of the book is that Huckleberry Finn starts out racist in a racist society, and stops being racist and leaves that society. These changes mean the book ceases to show the moral development of his character. They have no merit and are misleading to readers. The whole point of literature is to expose us to different ideas and different eras, and they won’t always be nice and benign. It’s dumbing down.”
What I find completely inexcusable is the notions that some teachers feel they can’t teach Huckleberry Finn. Why on earth not? When I was taught it in school, my teacher began by putting the book, and the dreaded word, into context. That’s right: my teacher actually taught me and my classmates about the importance of historical integrity and how language reflects the culture of its times. So when we started reading the book, we were well aware that “nigger” was going to appear (I don’t remember if “injun” was flagged) eleventy-bajillion times. And you know what? We were still able to read the book and discuss it.
What’s next? Changing “Moby Dick” to “Moby Richard” because “dick” is a slang term for “penis”?
Changing words in books to reflect the conceits of modern times is insane. For those who say “Think of the children!” I say that the children are very smart, thank you, and can understand what is meant by historical context — especially when there is a teacher who, you know, teaches them about historical context. But I suppose someone like Gribben, who (according to this USA Today article) was so sheltered growing up that he never once heard the word nigger, would much rather sanitize things they find upsetting instead of teach them in a thoughtful, intelligent way.
There’s a lot of ugliness in American history, including racism. Removing so-called insensitive words from books that purposefully illustrate that ugliness destroys the integrity of those books. As Dr. Chruchwell says, it’s the dumbing down of literature. It’s litterature.
Stop feeding kids garbage. Don’t dumb down books.