Modern readers uncomfortable with offensive language
//Evelyn Cranston, Writer

Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is being tweaked to ease tensions over the use of “nigger” and “injun” in an attempt to broaden the demographic the book will reach in the 21st century. An alternate and cleaned up version is being released to the public, especially for classroom use.

Alan Gribben, Twain scholar and long term head of the English department of Auburn University, is spearheading the edits, which will replace the offending words with slave and Indian. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn follows the free spirited adventures of two young boys, Tom and Huck, a white boy and a black boy who set sail on the Mississippi River in the 1840s.

This was a time of overt racism that permeated every aspect of life, from job opportunities to social and political organization. Inequality was a deeply ingrained vein of perception, and from our modern viewpoint, injustice was glaringly obvious. The Deep South of the US in particular during this time was far from a politically correct and racially inclusive society and although Tom and Huck’s playful journeys were depicted as idyllic adventures of childhood, they had a serious message crafted into the dialogue. It spun the tale of children discovering the brutalities of the society they lived in, rejecting the conventional bigoted mindset and overall carried a strong anti-racist message.

Twain’s work has long been highly contentious and controversial. From 1990 to 1999, it was the fifth most challenged book from the American Library System. The list of 100 books also contains tender subjects such as puberty and witchcraft, and is littered with books that have achieved tremendous popularity, like Catcher in the Rye and the Harry Potter series.

Gribbens, who has led many Twain readings, felt pressure and anxiety because of the word usage, and claims to recognize echoed feelings of uneasiness in listeners. While he applauds Twain’s ability to capture a realistic representation of the times, he believes that, “abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority repulse modern-day readers." Ironically, Twain was a major critic of censorship, stating that, “Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it.” The edited, censored version of the classic is specifically intended for classroom use, as some teachers are so deeply uncomfortable with the original diction that they eschew covering the work at all.

The word, used 217 times in print, has worked its way from a perfectly acceptable adjective to one of the most deeply degrading epithets. Although the forbidden syllables can be found dotting the beats of rap songs, and can be heard in exchanges between people comfortable with speaking and receiving it, using it as a casual supplement to daily language has progressed to become regarded as a social taboo, completely off limits.

While there is an obvious advantage to spreading this influential novel to as many groups as possible, a case can be made that it’s intensely important that the original work be preserved, and remain intact, untouched and unaltered. The original diction is uncomfortable, insensitive and far from politically correct, but it’s a true mirror of the society. It warps the original intent of words as a communicator, and keeps us forever tip-toeing precariously around sensitive and often important issues to avoid offending someone. Changing the language of the original work may allow us to enjoy the work without wincing at the words, but it distorts the reality of a brutally ugly past.

Censoring the novel is an extreme insult to the dead author and also a blow to all the gains in the direction of racial equality. Cleaning up mistakes is acceptable in a household, but never in capturing and representing history. Disguising and altering a true account poses the risk of losing the truth. Stories of schools avoiding discussing the Holocaust to avoid offending deniers or textbook illustrations depicting Christopher Columbus shaking hands with native chiefs warp our perception of the past, leaving gaping holes in our minds, leaving us vulnerable to repeat mistakes and atrocities. 

Any teacher that shies away from the opportunity to present such a dramatic and striking lesson learned needs to reconsider their intentions as an educator. All throughout school, we were given the impression that we were prepping for the mystical and harsh “real world.” Studying and analyzing Huckleberry Finn would offer a glimpse of the realities of living in a bigoted society, and reminds us that it’s something we would never want to revert to. I remember reading Huckleberry Finn when I was a kid, and struggled through it, perhaps not completely comprehending the historical significance of the words, but feeling acutely aware of a growing discomfort. Looking back, I’m glad I read it, and was privy to a historically accurate, though fictional retelling.

Although it’s unlikely the whole message of the book will change with the censorship, the alterations insult historical accuracy, softening up a horrible period for those with sensitive tastes, and the author as well. Some have even raised claims that the words are not less offensive at all, they simply make white readers feel more comfortable. As Roger Ebert tweeted: “I’d rather be called a nigger than a slave.”

//Evelyn Cranston, Writer

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