Friday, January 7, 2011

COMMENTARY: Updated version or censorship?

This week, Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben announced a new version of “Huckleberry Finn.” This is essentially Twain’s text with the 219 instances of the word nigger changed to slave. The edition is 7500 so far. The book’s publisher, New South Publications, states the book was produced because many school districts are removing “Huckleberry Finn” from their reading lists because of the objectionable language.

I first read “Huckleberry Finn” in fifth grade at the direction of my teacher, Mrs. Mary Cowden. (Wherever she is, bless her) The language shocked me. My Mom had talked to me about the n-word and taught me to refer to Black people as colored long before that.

Even more critically, I felt sensitive to the usage because this was the first year our school was integrated. Prior to this, the only non-White student in my classes was the Hispanic son of a prominent physician. Now, each day busses came from across town to deliver Black kids of all socioeconomic types and temperaments, including one of the most talented artists in our school.

Mrs. Cowden used the reading assignment as not just an exploration of some of our nation’s finest literature, but a perspective on our country’s history. At that time, Southerners legally owned slaves and the n-word was the socially acceptable reference for them.

After reading literature from many time periods, I’ve come to realize that the ‘talk of the times’ helps to enrich and enlighten readers. What would Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” by without their ribald usage? Or Raymond Chandler's noir patter? I'm sure you can think of more.

And frankly, just reviewing “Huckleberry Finn” quickly, I don’t think you can resolve the issue of the current day pejorative with a word-processed replace all solution. That greatly devalues Twain’s genius and the characterization in the works.

And if you think Huck was putting down Jim when he was using the references, you clearly have not read the book. For example, of their journeys: “We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed—only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all—that night, nor the next, nor the next.” (Chapter 12) And, finally, of Jim himself: “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n.” (Chapter 23) And, the most telling: “I knowed he was white inside.”

An even greater fear of mine is the deliberate politically motivated expurgation of our history, particularly slavery and the Jim Crow era. “Patriot History” is a notable example of current historical releases doing just that. I recall one of my favorite quotes: “A culture that forgets its past is doomed to repeat it” – Santayana. Are we deliberately devaluating our country’s previous racism in order to eventually attempt to reduce civil rights? In Twain’s own words: “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.” (Chapter 33)

We’ve come a long way, baby, but nowhere near far enough to do that. Just look at crime and education statistics and you can see that.

Another Twain scholar, Dr. Stephen Raillon of the University of Virginia, has a version of “Huckleberry Finn” coming out sometime later this year. In this case, the text is intact; however, the book includes commentary about the times and racism

Meanwhile, if you want the REAL “Huckleberry Finn” in all its richness, make sure to get the Mark Twain version.

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