If you’ve been paying attention, then you know that a censored edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being published. This proposed edition will eliminate the word “nigger,” “Injun,” and “half-breed,” replacing them with “slave,” “Indian,” and “half-blood.”
These changes have produced much discussion in the blogosphere, including a thoughtful post by a former student of mine. I can understand why this edition might be attractive, given Huck Finn‘s sanitation in the past. Young people and students would be able to read an American classic without parents and teachers having to be worried about them picking up racist language. However, as several people with whom I have discussed this issue have noted, most teenagers (and maybe even preteens) today regularly hear racist, misogynistic, and homophobic language; eliminating racist language in Huck Finn, then, doesn’t make much sense.
In my judgment, this edition erases the past and emasculates Twain’s work. Replacing the two words that are offensive to modern ears leaves readers without an understanding of the racial attitudes that existed when Twain wrote in the late 1800s. As Randall Kennedy notes, “This isn’t to make it more accessible. This is to cover up a word that hurts people’s feelings and is just a very volatile word.” Additionally, literature should be taken as it was written, with the understanding that the author(s) chose specific words for specific reasons.
I don’t fear that Huck Finn in its original form will disappear, but I still recommend avoiding this edition. If one has young children who are reading Huck Finn or other classics that address sensitive topics, then one should be talking to them about what they’re reading. Ignoring past racism doesn’t help anyone.
For more on the etymology and use of the word “nigger,” see Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002) and Jabari Asim, The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why (2007).