60 Minutes just dedicated one-third of its namesake to the Huck Finn controversy. The segment featured pre-pubescent students saying Mark Twain “overused” the the word nigger, meaning the word should be redacted. The interviewer failed to ask the logical follow up, “Who the fuck are you to tell Mark Twain how to write?” We thought the incident deserved a blast from the past from contributor Edmund Morganfield, on censoring Mark Twain.
Mark Twain was many things in life and a genius at most of them, but surely his most accomplished trade, next to his prose, was troublemaking. So, it should come as no surprise that over a century after his death, the Clemens boy is once again in trouble with schoolteachers.
Twain enlisted in the Confederate Army when he was a young man–a hanging crime in the North–and deserted his command, along with his entire company, two weeks later–a hanging crime in the South. Having effectively made himself a fugitive in the entire country within a fortnight, he went West, where he began work as a newspaper correspondent. He later accused one of the most prominent women’s groups in Silver City, Nevada, of supporting miscegenation. He came into work the next day and found a pile of invitations, all of them from the ladys’ husbands, all of them to duels.
After practicing his sharpshooting with a friends in a nearby barn–and failing to hit even the broadside of it–he decided to leave town, and was hiding in the mining camps above Silver City when he heard the story that eventually became “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calevaris County,” and launched his career. Mark Twain lived a life on the social margins, told stories about violence and attacked the values of middle-class America with impunity, and got paid obscene amounts of money for doing it. He also dropped the n-word like a bad job. Surely, this man was the original gansta rapper.
A new edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is replacing the word “nigger,” mentioned 219 times in the book, with the word “slave.” The reason is obvious; the word is immensely offensive in almost every context, reminds us of the deep painful history of racism that is woven into the history of this country, and keeps the books out of libraries and schools where it could actually do some good. It’s an impulse that teachers have been fighting for a long time, but in the interest of being able to teach good literature without worrying about a political firestorm, it kinda seems like a good idea, doesn’t it?
In an effort to mask the unpleasantries of our nation’s ugliest crime, we are taking out the very word, which paints a picture of hatred Twain wanted to combat. Huck Finn is immensely controversial, but not because of a racial epithet. When Thomas Jefferson was accused of having relations with his slave Sally Hemmings, John Adams was asked about the scandal and replied (approximately), “Whether it is true or not, it is exactly the sort of thing we should expect from slavery. It is an institution that degrades the slaveowner as well as the slave.” Adams gets kudos for not slamming his compatriot (Jungle Fever was a chronic ailment among Southern gentlemen), but we often miss his point.
We often forget that to tolerate evil such as slavery, a society must make moral compromises with itself, and then justify them. Twain based his book on a study of that kind of racism. He wanted to document what happens when people live beside something like slavery and how it debases them in subtle, almost indefinable ways. There is no better manifestation of this illness than the casual and almost nauseatingly-constant use of the word “nigger,” which gives the reader an understanding into 1) How truly and deeply racist this society was, and 2) How this racism was sustained.
The first step toward moral justification is to dehumanize your enemy, and the word “nigger” does that nicely. Literature is a very dangerous business. When it’s taught right–which it almost never is–it inspires original thought, which is dangerous and necessary for a free society. When it’s not taught right–which it almost always is–it distills complexity and ambiguity into neat little life lessons without risking our pupils stumbling upon anything so questionable as unpleasant realities.
Understanding racism? Of course we want students to do that. But could we do it without all the, um, racism? Does it come with a crappy 1980s made-for-TV movie that we can show the kids in class, instead of making them read? Can we basically compress it all down into a Hallmark card, and can we just read that? Even the Cliff Notes get pretty dull after 30 pages. Sorry kids, but you can’t learn this shit from Wishbone. If reading the word “nigger” is painful and destabilizing, well, that’s because it should be. Literature is too often infantalized at the school level, and that’s precisely why it’s so boring. When we bowdlerize (look it up, you can use it later at your next Smart Persons’ Meeting), all we are doing is sanitizing the story by depriving it of the unpleasant truth, and depriving ourselves of the chance to address and hopefully correct it. After all, if we remove the evil backdrop from a story, what the Hell is the protagonist fighting? This has no value for reader or student. The kiddies might as well rock the Game Boy beneath the hardcover for all the good it’s doing them.
Many conservatives cried foul when the Twain story came up, but Republicans engaged in the same logic when they left out the 3/5 Compromise when reading the Constitution on the House floor a couple weeks ago. That clause was racist and unpleasant because it says a black person is 40 percent less valuable than a white person, right?
Southern slaveholders wanted slaves to be fully counted in the census, in order to boost their numbers in congress, thereby ensuring slavery in perpetuity. Abolitionists didn’t want blacks counted in the census at all, because if you’re not going to treat them as humans, why count them as such? The 3/5 Compromise was meant to point out to slave states their shitty logic when it came to determining the value of human life. That doesn’t fit into a soundbite, which is why news outlets like Time and the general public now just call it racist, then skip over it.
But there are lessons to take away from this period in history. The 3/5 Compromise was an ugly agreement, which our fledgling nation made in order to unsuccessfully preserve unity and phase out slavery. What we have found is that running from evil or trying to nibble at it by mincing words doesn’t quite do the trick. Sometimes musket fire and harsh, hurtful words are needed to remind us what evil sounds like.
Expunging the word “nigger” or forgetting the 3/5 Compromise to solve the problem of racism is equivalent to removing all the clocks in the house so we never have to remind ourselves that we’re late. Blame it on a word instead, as if this will solve anything. Instead of taking it upon ourselves to understand the issue and deal with the hard moral questions, we choose the road of least resistance and take it out on something with no political lobbies or pundits to advocate its cause; in this case, the English language. If you thought Sarah Palin was butchering it, just wait till your third period English teacher gets done.