This is a column about a word few newspapers will print.
You see the quandary. If I can’t write the word and expect it to be published, how can you, the reader, understand my points and agree or disagree? Nonetheless, such a stripping of vocabulary will occur in a new edition of Mark Twain’s classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” This revised version, to be released in February, will delete the racial epithet often used to refer to the runaway slave Jim. A derogatory reference to Native Americans is also being reconfigured.
“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” won’t escape this literary assault by the publishing house NewSouth Books either.
The decision to replace the N-word (see, that’s how we handle it within journalism) from the novels prompted cries of censorship, as it should.
Some critics of the move predict Samuel Clemens will turn over in his grave (doubtful), while others correctly point out that striking the racist vocabulary undercuts the work’s poignant messages of anti-racism.
Satire is a deft literary device. In many instances, Twain’s use of the offending word simply can’t pack the same power with “slave” as a replacement.
But this isn’t the only outrage. Nor does it signal the most significant problem highlighted by the new editions.
Substituting the N-word with “slave” is bowing to a deeply discouraging trend in education: school districts’ unwillingness and general difficulties in teaching the work.
For decades, Twain’s novels have occasioned many a cantankerous school board meeting and angry call from parents due to the loaded racial language. Indeed, many school districts have simply banned the book from curriculums rather than deal with the backlash of upset parents.
But race, humanity and slavery are the central themes in Twain’s book. They are also deep veins of the American experience. The lazy teacher, the one hesitant to interject the term and guide students through the experience, just got a pass. They can use this version and gloss over much of what Twain is saying through the tale of a runaway slave and ragtag kid adrift together on the Mississippi River.
I think America’s teachers can handle the N-word. They have to be able to handle it. Here we are a nation poised to begin noting the 150th anniversary of our Civil War and we’re reluctant to examine such a powerful word, even in its historical context.
In 2011, such epithets should make America cringe. But not shrink. Schools ought to be teaching a deep understanding of the context and messages of Twain’s works.
I’m not arguing for bandying the word about carelessly. And teachers certainly would be well advised to institute strict rules about how and when the term could be raised in class. Students can’t be allowed to become mired in the muck of the word’s negativity, or hurl it against each other.
Other seminal works, like the book (whose entire title I can’t print) by Randall Kennedy “------: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word,” should be included in the study of Twain.
The commentaries about Twain by other great writers — Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison, to name only a few — could also be infused into the lessons.
But ultimately, stripping the word from the novel denies the character Jim as well. The routine contempt he and other slaves faced is difficult to understand in a modern context in which rappers believe they can “reclaim” the word in lyrics and neuter its negativity.
But for the era Twain was capturing, Huck thought nothing of casually using it, despite his deep feelings for and actions on Jim’s behalf.
Shrinking from the term altogether is not what our educational system should be doing.
Huckleberry Finn might have something to say about this new move to sanitize the country’s past: “What you run from too hard just might catch up in some mighty unexpected ways.”