Thursday, January 6, 2011

Removing Nigger From Huckelberry Finn Is A Mistake



As you may well have heard, an Auburn University scholar named Alan Gribben, has adapted the novel Huckelberry Finn to exclude the word nigger. In an interview with Publisher's Weekly Girbben had this to say:
"This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind," said Gribben, speaking from his office at Auburn University at Montgomery, where he's spent most of the past 20 years heading the English department. "Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century."

The idea of a more politically correct Finn came to the 69-year-old English professor over years of teaching and outreach, during which he habitually replaced the word with "slave" when reading aloud. Gribben grew up without ever hearing the "n" word ("My mother said it's only useful to identify [those who use it as] the wrong kind of people") and became increasingly aware of its jarring effect as he moved South and started a family. "My daughter went to a magnet school and one of her best friends was an African-American girl. She loathed the book, could barely read it."
 
(snip)

"After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable." Gribben became determined to offer an alternative for grade school classrooms and "general readers" that would allow them to appreciate and enjoy all the book has to offer. "For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs," he said.
Gribben has no illusions about the new edition's potential for controversy. "I'm hoping that people will welcome this new option, but I suspect that textual purists will be horrified," he said. "Already, one professor told me that he is very disappointed that I was involved in this."
Gribben is engaging in revisionist history by deciding to substitute the word slave for nigger.  The truth is, the word nigger is meant to make us uncomfortable and Twain knew that even as he wrote the book.  It was an intentional commentary on the state of race relations and the message it has to teach us is no less relevant today.  We must begin to confront the systemic nature of racism and have conversations that make us uncomfortable.  

Paul Butler writing for the New York Times had this to say:

It’s complicated, “nigger” is. I suffered through Huckleberry Finn in high school, with the white kids going out of their way to say “Nigger Jim” and the teacher’s tortured explanation that Twain’s “nigger” didn’t really mean nigger, or meant it ironically, or historically, or symbolically. Whatever. I could live my whole life fine if I never read that book again. 

If some teachers have the audacity to believe that Mark Twain’s work is still meaningful, even absent the words “nigger” and “injun,” more power to them. If other teachers think keeping those epitaphs in is worth the pain they will cause students of color, I understand that too. This isn’t about censorship, it’s about choice. Either choice will have unfortunate consequences.
I cannot argue that students of colour will not face issues in the classroom dealing with this text, but I do believe since racism is something we confront on a daily basis, and I don't see why this book is so overwhelming.  I think what this pain suggests, is that teachers need to work harder to ensure that they are teaching students to think critically and in a true anti-racist form, as they confront racism and their White privilege.  The book is a difficult text for both Black students, who will be reminded of the second class status and White students who will be challenged to think about race critically if taught correctly. 

The word nigger and racism are not meant to be easy subjects to discuss.  They are meant to challenge race as a construction and the manner in which society privileges Whiteness.  Our very discomfort with the text is symbolic of our refusal to confront the ways in which race had been constructed to oppress and demean bodies of colour.  When the word slave is substituted for the word nigger, it helps to reduce the ugliness of that time of American history, leaving no context for the issues it continues to engender today.

Whether we like it or not, nigger has not disappeared and can be heard in everything from popular music to movies.  We are not safe from its assaultive substance by erasing and sanitizing its existence in one book.  If we really want to challenge the use of the word nigger, we need to explain how it came into existence and why its continued usage is harmful, rather than pretending that there was a magical time in which Blacks and Whites were buddies despite oppression.  Huckleberry Finn teaches us that even as Whites believe that they are being friendly and creating bonds, because of racial imbalance, they still have the ability at anytime to cause pain by invoking their supposed racial superiority.  Some apologist may not believe in the veracity of this statement, but any person of colour who has had a White friend can tell a painful story of betrayal. The slave Jim teaches us nothing, but Jim the nigger reminds us that U.S. is a land filled with systemic inequalities that have yet to be conquered.