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

The N Word Revisted

A couple of days ago I wrote about the controversy surrounding the new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn that has changed the N-word for slave.

I wrote that I wasn’t comfortable as it is not for a white person to decide how a person of color feels when they hear the word in the context of literature. I have been thinking about this ever since. Before I share my own thoughts, I want to give the floor to Suzanna La Rosa, co-founder and publisher of NewSouth Books. While admitting their offices have been flooded with negative e-mails and phone calls, she states:

“We didn’t undertake this lightly. If our publication fosters good discussion about how language affects learning and certainly the nature of censorship, then difficult as it is likely to be, it’s a good thing.”

Others, however, have attacked the publishers for “censorship” and “political correctness,” or simply for the perceived sin of altering the words of a literary icon. The hefty “Autobiography of Mark Twain,” published last year, has become a best seller.

English teachers have also expressed their objection to the idea of cleaning up the novel. Elizabeth Absher, an English teacher at South Mountain High School in Arizona, says:

“I’m not offended by anything in ‘Huck Finn.’ I am a big fan of Mark Twain, and I hear a lot worse in the hallway in front of my class.”

Ms. Absher does not teach ‘Huck Finn’ because it is a long book. She does, however teach many of  Twain’s short stories and makes “Huck Finn” available for students.

“I think authors’ language should be left alone,” she said. “If it’s too offensive, it doesn’t belong in school, but if it expresses the way people felt about race or slavery in the context of their time, that’s something I’d talk about in teaching it.”

In another New York Times editorial, That’s Not Twain, the opinion was made very clear.

“When “Huckleberry Finn” was published, Mark Twain appended a note on his effort to reproduce “painstakingly” the dialects in the book, including several backwoods dialects and “the Missouri negro dialect.” What makes “Huckleberry Finn” so important in American literature isn’t just the story, it’s the richness, the detail, the unprecedented accuracy of its spoken language. There is no way to “clean up” Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work.”

I am not going into the sanctity of literature or the censorship of authors. There is plenty of such reactions on the blogosphere. But, in my previous post, I wrote about how as a white person and even as a Jew, I felt this was for African-Americans to decide. If I am offending them by reading such words and having our children read them.

This is what has been on my mind. As a Jew, I resent when people use the word Holocaust freely. I believe it cheapens what the Nazis did to my people. I think where anti-Semitic words are used in a historical context, I want them to remain so. When my son heard the N-word being used in the audio book I was listening to, he challenged me. What came out of that was a discussion of slavery, of racism, and of the way we can hurt people by using offensive words.

If literature can facilitate such discussions and empower a greater understanding of slavery and racism, I think I side with those who want the N-word left in Twain’s work. Nothing will come out of burying our sins. We need to face them, admit to them, and ensure they will never happen again.
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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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One thought on “The N Word Revisted

  1. Huck Finn unabridged is nigh unteachable for the demographic that would get the most out of it; teenagers. The potential for using it as a tool to start dialogues on racism are eclipsed when Darnel or Shaniqua read their N-word strewn paragraphs aloud to the class in front of their chuckling classmates. Nobody would ask women to read the C word; it’s too offensively humiliating.
    And “slave” isn’t even a proper synonym.

    Negro or Black would be acceptable.

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