Thoughts on the Huck Finn hubbub

Still from 1920 film of Huckleberry Finn
From the 1920 film. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

My friend Kuong recently asked me what I thought about the decision to censor The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by replacing the words “nigger” and “injun.” (You can probably guess my opinion from the previous sentence.) After I wrote back (just a while ago), I figured I might as well post my thoughts. Here they are:

I think taking “nigger” out of Huck Finn amounts to bowdlerizing the novel. Writers use words purposefully, so changing them does have an impact on the text’s meaning. In the case of Huck Finn, the term “nigger,” which connotes inferiority and unhuman status, is used repeatedly as a deliberate contrast to Jim’s true, upstanding character.

“Slave” does not have the same impact, because it does not capture one of the unique elements of American slavery–that it sought to dehumanize slaves on the basis of race. This was not necessarily the case in other slaveholding societies, in which slave status was not determined by race. This is a meaningful distinction and is one worth discussing in classrooms. Of course, this means that teachers must be capable of discussing these nuances. But if they’re not capable of doing so, then they probably shouldn’t be teaching the novel, whether it’s bowdlerized or not.

(I am not well versed on the history of “injun,” so I can’t speak on the impact of that word. However, I find it interesting that nearly all the uproar over the work’s integrity or offensiveness has been focused on the word “nigger” and not “injun,” which many also consider a racial slur. I think that says a lot about how (little) we think about Native American issues, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.)

Beyond etymology, though, I think it’s harmful to assume that students of color–and students in general–won’t be able to understand or appreciate the usage of “nigger” in context and that they will automatically be offended. In fact, if I were a high school or college student presented with this edition, I’d be insulted. (Just like I was when I read some argument that To Kill a Mockingbird was racist and offensive to black people–seriously? How presumptuous of the writer, who is not of color, to speak for black people.)

I do recognize the good intention: to shield students from the pain associated with the word. However, I see one glaring irony here. Many students probably hear “nigger” regularly in music lyrics. Many black folks use the term themselves in reference to each other. Clearly they understand the importance of context: there’s a big difference between a group of guys hanging out and calling each “my niggas” and someone calling Rep. John Lewis a “nigger” for supporting the health care bill. And there’s a big difference between reading the word “nigger” in a historical novel and reading a letter that refers to you, personally, as a “nigger.” Let’s not underestimate students’ ability to make that distinction.

Also, I can’t help but point out that plenty of black writers, including Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, have used “nigger” liberally in their work. Yet I don’t see any arguments for bowdlerizing their work or banning their texts from the classroom. I think we should think long and hard about sending the message that it’s OK for black people to use a certain word, but that word becomes offensive if anyone else uses it. That’s a pretty problematic double standard. I do think there are important questions of ownership and license to be addressed in regard to racial terms, but I don’t believe the distinction is nearly as cut-and-dried as “only black people can say or write this word.”

All this controversy surrounding Huck Finn, I believe, says a lot more about adults’ inability to speak honestly about racism rather than any concern about students’ education or emotional well-being. Most white folks recoil at the term “nigger.” But too many have no qualms talking about how they avoid black neighborhoods, or how black people are less desirable hires because of affirmative action, or how the rude men on the street are always black. I think we focus too much on words themselves rather than the thoughts and meanings behind them–which is what English class should be about.