Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Sean Ferrell says it better than anyone else

With apologies to anyone who has ever been verbally assaulted by the use of the term, the word "nigger" matters.

A new edition of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is being released by NewSouth books with the text censored to remove the word "nigger" and replace it with "slave." This galling decision has been done, claims Twain expert Alan Gribben, because, "Race matters in these books... It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century."

I think Mr. Gribben has confused the importance of history and literature with contemporary mores and marketing.

Here's the link to the rest of the post.

I'm glad we're all offended by use of that terrible word, but the way to deal with it is not to bowdlerize the novels it appears in. As one of the commenters on the post replies: erasing is the first step to forgetting.


NiaRaie said...

As an African American woman, let me say that the word "nigger" does matter and that it should remain in that text. That's the word that was used then and we all know this. Let's not modify text to cover it up and pretend that it wasn't.

Steve Stubbs said...

I believe anyone should have the right to re-write Mark Twain in any way he or she wants, subject to the singular proviso that said individual is a better writer than he was. Um, wait a minute, that eliminates everyone alive today.

Maybe he should be allowed to speak in his own words.

Jaleh D said...

How are parents and teachers supposed to teach how language has changed through the ages if today's offensive words are censored out of our literature? The N-word was used more freely back then; it was part of culture, used by characters who would have said it, and written in a time where it had a different social weight. Leaving the text as originally written offers a valuable teaching moment to discuss why the words were used and how the social acceptance has changed over time.

I consider the practice of changing established works to remove racial and social bias to be more repugnant than the words themselves. I wouldn't want someone to come along and change my old favorite Tom & Jerry cartoons or Looney Tunes cartoons just because of racial and political propaganda in some of the episodes. (Didn't someone do that or try to do that to Dr. Doolittle? the actual books, not the movies) We just teach how society has changed. Heck, one of my college classes deliberately pulled out some of those cartoons to discuss in class. But I guess some people want to hide from the past and keep everyone else from seeing as well.

Christopher S. Ledbetter said...

I'm also African American, and I think it's appalling to censor any text. Or any creative work for that matter. It's bad enough that individual states censor their own textbooks. Who knows what children are learning today?

Charli Armstrong said...

Bravo Mr. Ferrell! Man, I couldn't have said it BETTER! I've been so stunned by all this I can't even process my feelings. All I can think about is Mark Twain hovering around somewhere going 'WTF?'

Anyone want to censor my last sentence?

Joyce Tremel said...

Sean said exactly what I've been thinking. It's wrong to change history.

I used the "N" word in a manuscript. It was in a journal entry written by a Confederate soldier. I originally used "darkie" (which is offensive in itself) but my historian son called me on it and told me that's not what a Confederate soldier would have used. You can't revise history just because it might offend someone.

Brenda B. said...

Absolutely. Taking the word out says something far worse than leaving it in.

Brenda B. in Maine

Merry Monteleone said...

The thing that still blows my mind is that this is a person who must know full well the weight with which Mark Twain chose his words. He used the word nigger more than 200 times in the text of Huck Finn, only 4 in its preceeding Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I think it's pretty safe to assume he was making a point by his choice of language.

Linda Leszczuk said...

I am old enough to remember when public restrooms were segregated for "white" and "colored". Will we be erasing those references from our literature as well?

What is the quote about those who forget history are doomed to repeat it?

Kristin Laughtin said...

I agree with that post so hard. It was a word used commonly at the time, and the fact that Twain made a point to use it so much is indicative of the attitude and context of the time. It was meant to be ugly. It was meant to be revealing. It was a deliberate choice. Changing it not only covers the reality of the times, but censors the author's meaning. (Besides that, changing it to Slave Jim is patently inaccurate.)

One of the arguments I've heard in favor of making the change is that schoolkids might have to read the text aloud, and that might cause awkwardness. In that case, I think the way the text is taught needs to be changed. The teachers need to adapt their lesson plans to address the use of this word in the historical context, if they're not already teaching this. And I wouldn't mind a footnote or even a short essay doing the same thing in published versions of the book either.

@Joyce: I think that's the right decision. It's an ugly truth, but it's still the truth. You're writing a historical novel, and it's the only way to be accurate to the history.

ARJules said...

I have to admit, I was a little angry when I heard about the censoring of Twain's text. It's appalling to me that people want to sweep our ugly pasts under the rug.

In literature, we have a unique opportunity to expose and confront our darkest secrets and pasts. How many people do not know about Japanese determent camps that came after Pearl Harbor? Most don't. But then, a book like "Snow Falling on Cedars" comes out and puts a spotlight on the racism and discrimination that they faced.

The same goes in this instance. You can't take a word out of a text, no matter how offensive, no matter how disgusting it is. Because if we forget how we treated people in the past, it not only insults those to whom it was done, but it also makes it easier for us to pretend it didn't happen. And as the saying goes, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Lydia said...

Sanitizing our history only serves to perpetuate more atrocities in the future...and that is not a future I want our children marching into.

christine tripp said...

I'd love to know why these "Educators" believe calling a man a "slave" is far better? White man's act of inslaving another human being (and the treatment that came along with it) was far more hidious than any derogatory name could ever be. Yet it seems to be suggested as a good alternative term for the book in such a flippant manner. Oh, lets just call him "slave", that's so much nicer!