Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

A Place For The N Word

Last month I listened to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Two factors were involved in this decision. Firstly, having been educated in the land of Chaucer and Shakespeare, I am woefully ignorant of classical literature in the country I now reside. Secondly, I was about to travel to Louisiana and work a stones’ throw from the banks of the Mississippi.

Just when I began the book, the N-word controversy exploded. NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, announced it plans to release a new edition in February wherein the word “nigger” is replaced by “slave.”

The word appears 219 times in all, it is hard to miss. I was listening when my 12 year-old got into the car and the word was spoken twice. My son, a proud product of Berkeley tolerance, was shocked. We had a long conversation about literature and artistic license. We have already had a number of discussions as to why I can write swear words and have them published, words that he is not allowed to say.

JULIE BOSMAN in an excellent New York Times article – Publisher Tinkers With Twain – explains that the idea came from Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University in Montgomery.  The professor has been teaching Mark Twain for decades and talked about always feeling uncomfortable when reading out loud a common racial epithet.

“I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’ ” he said. “And I don’t think I’m alone.”

Mr. Gribben, believes that Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have dropped off of many reading lists and wants to make the books more accessible.

“I’m by no means sanitizing Mark Twain,” Mr. Gribben said. “The sharp social critiques are in there. The humor is intact. I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone.” (The book also substitutes “Indian” for “injun.”).

Does he have a point? While my ancestors were enslaved in Egypt a few centuries ago, it is not part of our scarred psyche – there are far too many more recent acts that scar the Jewish  people. So I am unclear whether I should have a say in the debate.

I would love to hear from people of color whose ancestors were slaves in America. Would you share your opinions in the comments?

Either way, the special relationship that develops between Huck and Jim is what makes this novel so special. It is a timeless lesson in companionship, as relevant today as ever before.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com


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2 thoughts on “A Place For The N Word

  1. Alon,
    David Hoopes has written an eBook sequel novel to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The book asks the question: What would have happened if Huckleberry Finn and Samuel Langhorne Clemens had grown up together in Hannibal, Missouri, in the 1850’s? The Trials of Huckleberry Finn tells that story and follows their relationship through Sam’s years on the Mississippi. It is written in typical Huckleberry Finn narrative style.
    Would you be willing to read a review copy?

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