25 years ago Roger Sutton, now editor of the Horn Book wrote an article for the School Library Journal about a new edition of Mark Twains Huckleberry Finn edited by John H. Wallace. The article was critical of Wallace’s omission of the word “nigger” and its general removal of overt references to racism. Sutton’s uses his blog to revisit this theme as a matter of reflection on a new edition of Huckleberry Finn created by Alan Gribben. It is called the New South Edition and the name is telling.
When Wallace published he edition 25 years ago it went largely unnoticed by the main stream that this was the same person who once said “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written.” One must wonder why a book Wallace considered so vile would be a book he sought to publish in a new edition. The answer is simple. Wallace wished to alter history to make a troubling chapter in America more suitable to his personal tastes. He was thus guilty of omission but what’s worse is that he is guilty of the same sort of historical revision that created the twin myths of the lost cause and the New South, each of which diminished the importance of the issue of slavery and the legacy of racism in America.
The Lost cause postulated that the South was just in its cause and that defeat came about only through the overwhelming industry of the North. It rejects the idea that any moral component could be at work or that the institution upon which the South was based was itself responsible for the dramatic disparity in industry between north and south. The New South is in many ways as much a myth as it simply sidesteps the issue of racism outright. The New South myth was promulgated by Henry Grady, long time editor of the Atlanta Constitution and was intended to convey a sense of direction to the reconstruction era south. It sought to point forward by largely ignoring the past. This gave White southerners something to embrace but did little to deal with the plight of southern blacks who while now free were far from equal and far from enjoying any benefits of the new south. It was social myths like these which allowed cities like Atlanta to come up with catchy slogans like “the city to busy to hate”. This might be a nice idea but the real world is very different and Atlanta, and the south in general holds as much hate as anyplace else. One interesting outcome of the New South is that it served to create a divide separating the antebellum and thus slave holding south from its modern counterpart and it was this divide that would slowly creep into other parts of the United States. In time racism and racial violence would flourish in the South like never before, where once the Negro race was property, after the myth of the New South took hold there was only a bitter reminder of what was before in the form of the south’s black population. It was this more than anything else that led to the terrible period of racial tensions in the first half of the 20th century. Where Wallace sought to rewrite a history he was uncomfortable with Gribben seems to wish to sidestep the issue by treating it in purely intellectual terms. By rewriting Mark Twain he can create a mirror of the myths around which the New South is wrapped.
Why is it a bad idea to rewrite a reminder of an uncomfortable past? This is a difficult question and requires careful consideration. To begin to answer it we must accept one fundamental truth. The institution of Slavery and its legacy of racism around the country are central to who we are as a people, to our national identity as free born American’s and to our individual personhood. What Wallace did 25 years ago and what Gribben is doing today negates the importance of “that peculiar institution” to the history of America and to both African Americans and White Americans (terms of division which I personally reject but which I shall use herein for the purpose of clarity), They have reduced the worthy feat of forging a culture out of oppression to a curious happenstance with no lasting merit and no particular genesis and most important of all they have tarnished the hard work of men and women of all colors who worked towards the freeing of Slaves and then towards true equality. The truth is that in their lives both Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King separated by a hundred years dealt with the commonplace word “nigger” and it was their dealing with it, and the way they dealt with it that brought about positive change in their lives and through them all of our lives. Beyond them, for whom the word held personal meaning the same word was no less common to others for whom there was no personal investment, authors like the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe whose own book Uncle Toms Cabin began a transformation in the minds of many Americans in regards to Blacks, both free and enslaved. Stowe uses the term “wooly headed nigger” many times but because she was a committed abolitionist we tend to forgive her for its use because we perceive it to be ironic, which is only a term designed by literary critics with very little real world application. Twain on the other hand used it to be accurate to the mode of thought and speech that would have been used by Huck Finn were he a real boy living in the real world. Critics do not detect irony from Mark Twain precisely because he was not seeking to be ironic but rather accurate and truthful. While irony is a useful tool to extrapolate meaning from a text only truth and accuracy (conveyed either directly or through symbolism) are of any use in finding meaning in real life. By removing the word from Twains Huckleberry Finn we are in effect seeking to remove it from history. By doing so we reject all the history that surrounded the word.
This is all well and good for the scholar or the casual reader but what of the child student? Teaching Mark Twain’s Huck Finn in schools is a difficult endeavor and is filled with many potential pitfalls, not the least of which is the very real sensitivities of impressionable minds. I do see where some people would be bothered by a work that uses racist language so frequently but the risks to black students exclusively (and we must understand that it is young black students that a work of such glaring omission is directed) being confronted with a cruel word pale in comparison to the great benefit that is wrought to children both white and black through confronting the word and what it means not only linguistically but historically and philosophically. I would argue that the omission of that word is itself racist in tone because it sets black children apart from white children rather than attempt to bring them together through a common, though troubled historical awareness. It is too easy to forget that white’s and black’s alike lived through America’s slave past and were both affected by its presence, albeit in very different ways. In many ways both were victims of an institution that came to grip the very fabric of their society. I of course do not mean to suggest that the white master was the equal victim alongside the black slave but they did share the same equality of living in a society with fixed rules governing who is worthy and who is not. The word itself is only a verbal symbol of the deep set intellectual and emotional legacy of the institution of slavery which permeated their lives.
The “N” as it has come to be called is so shocking, so deeply profound in its implication’s that it has what could be called ignition power. You simply cannot encounter that word and not take notice and there lies its power for both good and ill. In the classroom where young boys and girls of all races must deal with one another in a direct way the word can be used to strengthen unity by teaching why it brings with it so much pain. No child is born racist. That is a learned trait but they learn it by example, not by vocabulary. Remember that the word is only a symbol and as such has only so much power as we give it. Through Huck Finn the child begins to learn that what society dictates (in his case that the black man was inferior) is not as important as the personal dictates of moral decency. Huck never questions Jim status within their society; he goes deeper and reexamines Jim as an individual. At the moment Huck decides that he would rather go to hell than let Jim be taken back into slavery he does not reject the whims of society, nor does he make any theological arguments as to the nature of the negro (similar theological and philosophical debates were responsible for the promulgation of slavery to begin with) instead he reaffirms the greater truth of Jims individuality, his unique person-hood that is distinct from his classifications (field hand versus house slave, Light skin versus dark skin, free versus slave, white versus black) and it is through the realization of a persons individuality that true freedom begins to flourish. When we remove the “N” word from Huck’s mouth we remove that wonderful moment of realization wherein a young boy begins to identify a runaway slave as a unique person and thus as his equal.
I can’t help to wonder if so much of the trouble people have with Huck Finn’s use of language as opposed to the same use in earlier works like Uncle Toms Cabin is that Mark Twain wrote after the end of slavery, a time when Americans wanted to put the pain of the past to rest. However this is a mistake. The pain of racism as anyone would agree did not end when the last slave was freed, nor did it end when the black man got the vote, or when Segregation came to an end, or when every seat on every bus in America was open. The pain of racism lingered on because people remembered it. And this brings me to my final point. Some people believe that removing offensive language from classic books is a benefit or that it somehow eases the pain of racism but that could not be further from the truth. Its absence is a constant reminder of inequality, of difference. It becomes the empty seat at the table everyone is uncomfortably aware of. And that is the surest way to keep pain alive.