Like my niggers from South Central Los Angeles they found that they couldn’t handle us. Bloods, CRIPS, on the same squad, with the Essays up, and nigger, it’s time to rob and mob and break the white man off something lovely…
Whoa, stop right there Dre. You can’t say that. No, you can threaten the white man as much as you like, though I’ve yet to understand exactly what your problem with albinos is, but you can’t use the N word. See, I just typed it and the gods of the web magically edited it to say “the N word”. Hey don’t feel down, doc. You’re not the only one whose words are being edited in this way. They even went after Mark Twain in the same way, and he’s not even alive to speak out against it. Check this out.
Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio—a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me—I’ll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger—why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?—that’s what I want to know.
Most of us can recognise this passage from Huckleberry Finn as a sign of the times. A sign of how awfully black people were treated in early America, to the point that many of them even felt they deserved to be treated so woefully. Part of the genius of the book is that the main character himself is a racist. For school children who’ve never experienced those times it’s a wonderful introduction to a historical period and a great jumping off point for a discussion on racism that may help to positively change their views in the future. Twain himself was trying to bring the plight of the slave to the forefront of people’s minds with this book, so it’s as much a stand for freedom as it is anything else. It’s also the fourth most banned book in America (based on the number of schools and libraries that have received enough complaints that the book has been taken off the shelves indefinitely) and isn’t allowed in most schools because it uses the N word. Gone are the chances to talk to schoolkids as adults and make them understand what was happening back then and why it should never happen again, gone was there gentle, yet enlightening introduction to a state of mind they have no reference for in this day and age.
Enter Alan Gribben, a sixty-nine year old scholar of Mark Twain’s literature who aims to save the day by replacing “nigger” (hey I slipped one through the PC filter) with the word “slave” throughout Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer novels and re-releasing them in a combined volume. Now Gribben has received a lot of flak about this plan (which will be enacted in February 2011 and is a limited release of 7,500 books purely for school use) mostly because he’s editing a classic work. A few people have gone further and actually noticed that slave isn’t exactly a racially tolerant word either. It’s not meant to be. It’s simply a way he’s found to get the same meaning across without violating the code that stops this book from being available to children, a way he’s found to allow children to have the wonderful experience he had reading these books as a child without setting the ever-present politically correct crowd on the book and letting them burn it. He’s not a devil trying to rewrite history, merely a man who loves something so much that he devoted his life to it and wants others to have the same chance as he did. He admits that he himself would have opposed rewriting the book until recently when he was sought out by teachers lamenting the loss of the book from the curriculum and asking if there was anything he could recommend that brings up the same sorts of issues. It was then that he started experimentally replacing the N word with slave in some of his public readings to gauge the public reaction and found that the public were more responsive to that word. In short, Alan Gribben is fighting the politically correct mob in the only way he knows – with words.
But is his gesture taking things too far? As Gribben is no doubt aware, and as has been pointed out repeatedly since this news broke, Twain was as particular about words as I am. A single altered word can completely change the way a paragraph reads or how dialogue flows. Try substituting the word “nigger” for “slave” in both of the quotes above and you’ll see what I mean. To quote the man himself;
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
I totally agree with that sentiment but that’s not what is being argued here, despite the many times it has been brought up in defiance of this project. The argument is actually whether what was the right word then is still the right word now when trying to bring the plight of the slave into the public mind. A nigger in those days was thought of as generally bad, and that’s the message the book is trying to get across (the way they were thought of and treated, not that they are actually bad), which is cheapened by the use of slave, which is a term for someone downtrodden. Changing the word is the difference between showing what is happening and saying what is happening. Should the word used in dialogue be changed and isn’t that just partially attempting to hide the past that this book tried so hard to make public in the first place? And, most importantly, why do we live in a world where a few can kick up enough of a fuss to dictate what should be available to the rest of us? Now I’m not going to get into a big discussion on censorship because that would take this article to epic poem proportions and would simply be rehashing what I’ve said on many occasions beforehand. What I will do is point out that a vast majority of the people who complained that the word is offensive are actually middle aged white women, presumably worried that their children will be bullied after reading that word out in class, but possibly just being busybodies. Not one of them has been subjected to the level of racism that they fear the N word will bring out, just as not one of them understands how that word had been taken in and changed by rap music from a derogatory term to a term of empowerment for young American black culture.
Of course, none of this really matters. The PC crowd have already leapt on the new book and started dissecting it as disrespectful to a classic of literature (despite a similar crowd banning it in the first place), ironically giving it the same eventual status as the book it aims to replace. Even the new book itself has no meaning except as a footnote in history, compared to the original, especially as there are other ways to combat the over-sensitivity of the politically correct crowd. Later this year another new version of Huckleberry Finn will be released, complete with reading notes that tell the reality of the novel as well as attitudes in that day and age.
And yes, it contains the word “nigger”.