Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Huck Finn and "Slave" Jim: Dangerous Censorship

This skit from Family Guy was the first thing I thought of when I heard about Huckleberry Finn being censored. It's probably one of the most banned American classics along with my beloved Scarlet Letter because it uses nigger over 200 times. I can understand parents being upset over it and they should definitely have the choice whether or not their kids should be subject to hearing that hateful word. But what the New South book editors are doing to censor this is dangerous.

When I was in 5th grade, we read "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" and it was my first exposure to hearing nigger so often in a book. Mind you, I went to a private Baptist school and there's no way that would probably fly in 2010 like it did in 1994-95. But I'm glad that my teacher read it to us because it exposed us all to how bad racism was in the South in the 1930's and that there were two worlds - Black and White. 

It's moments like this that kids today lack when it comes to understanding and having an awareness of racism/race-relations. And censoring Huck Finn is only going to increase that gap because some editors are once again trying to sanitize history in fear of offending folks.

Mark Twain was a master of humor and wit but he was also a master of capturing the Southern dialect. His books are not just great stories but they describe his times and are great windows in life during that time. Just like Charles Dickens to London, James Baldwin to Harlem, Nathaniel Hawthorne to New England, he described the South so vividly that it's important we look at his stories as they are to get what he's saying.

But here's why I say the censorship is dangerous. The New South editors changed nigger to slave as if those two words are interchangeable for Black people. That in itself is way more offensive and could cause a lot more problems

First of all, Huck Finn was written in 1885, 20 years after the Civil War. There were no slaves in the South. Sharecroppers yes, but no slaves. So already we're teaching future readers historical inaccuracies.

(Oh wait, we're already doing that with this guy and a few others.)

Second, history tells us that have been slaves of multiple races. Christopher Columbus enslaved people that looked nothing like me. Native Americans were probably enslaved before they were slaughtered.

Third, sadly most hip-hop will expose kids to the word more than any piece of literature. So really this won't do as much as you think if most kids in elementary/junior high/high school listen to hip-hop.

Finally, Black people were called niggers and are still being called niggers 135 years after the Civil War. I don't think people were having lynching parties and meant "Let's string these slaves up." From an English perspective, nigger (a word meaning ignorant) was used directly for Black people or dark-skinned people and is a fairly recent term since the 17th century while slave has had multiple meanings for thousands of years. 

I will be very careful what I expose my children to but that won't include pretending something didn't happen. This is something straight out of "Lies My Teacher Told Me" where we sanitize the past for fear of offending people yet we insult their intelligence at the same time. It reminds me of what the Texas school board did in March to skew history toward a more state-friendly, yet historically inaccurate agenda.

I say let parents decide what's appropriate for their children. Huckleberry Finn is a fun book with shenanigans that have captured the minds of kids for decades. I'm not opposed to all censorship but I feel that this kind should offend literature and history buffs along with anyone who wants to understand where we've come from as a country.

(My friend Chris, a Ph.D. candidate in history, offers his similar take on his blog - a worthy read)


  1. I have to say I let out a HUGE sigh of relief after reading your thoughtful blog. It IS a hateful word,but if we erase it from the books then we erase an embarrassing,degrading,era of American history. What race hasn't had a "word" attached to it? Im Italian,but since the Jersey shore..I've heard the word Guinea almost every day. (thanks snookie)Leave it to you, my dear friend to put thoughtful,useful perspective to this. I adore you.

  2. Whitewashing history of offensive terms won't help us be a smarter country, but it'll lead to the opposite. I know people said the N-word extensively post Civil War as much as you know the history of other Italian slurs. Boardwalk Empire uses them a lot but i understand its the time, not endorsing its current usage. Thank you my dear for you kind words