In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I am featuring a guest post that addresses the modern significance of racial slurs in classic literature. The post was written by my husband, Preston, and published on his personal blog in January 2011.
So I came across this news story on CNN. I occasionally browse the headlines for something interesting to read. I am usually very selective and critical about the news, but that’s a story for another day. I have linked the news story to this post. I’ll hit the high points, but by all means watch it and wrestle with it yourself. Don’t take my perspective as gospel. I imagine some people have different perspectives.
Anderson Cooper from CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 (AC360) is looking at “Censoring Huck Finn.” The crux of the story is debating the recent move of many schools in this country of removing Huckleberry Finn from their curricula and required reading lists because of its use of the term “nigger” or the “N word.” It appears over 200 times in the book, yet it is still considered a literary classic. In a recent turn of events, a publisher took it upon itself to republish the book without the “N word” by replacing it with “slave.” Needless to say, this move has sparked some controversy, so Anderson Cooper brought on a small panel of three people to debate the wisdom behind such a move. Of the three, two are professors (University of New Orleans & Syracuse) and one is a cultural critic (whatever that means). The panelists provided three basic perspectives in response to the question, “Does taking the ‘N word’ from Huck Finn make the book more accessible to a modern audience or did it lessen it somehow and change history?”
- The professor from Syracuse thinks you can remove the “N word” without detriment and feels the primary concern is whether or not it’s necessary for kids to be exposed to the word so many times when one exposure could make the point. He also explains that parents might desire the right to determine if their kids are exposed to it.
- The cultural critic feels that the redaction becomes tantamount to censorship as the book itself is a form of art and feels that if teachers/educators cannot have conversation about the book in context, are they qualified to be teaching on it at all? It’s there to promote discourse…
- The professor from New Orleans argues that he would allow the book containing the “N word” because it’s not about the word but about the portrayal of Blacks at that time in history. He believes that our youth can handle it if taught “well” and in the proper context. The sanitation of it would not allow them to appreciate where the word comes from and what it means.
I think they all made valid points—quality teaching, appropriate context, parental consent, avoiding censorship—they all just felt some points were more important than others. In today’s world they all apply.
For me personally, I cannot give words to how much I despise the “N word.” I have never understood someone’s inclination to use it. This “Black” notion of using the word as a way to address another Black person is absolutely stupid. It doesn’t matter how or why you use the word, it doesn’t change what it means or its etymology. Having said that, I have never shied away from the realities of this fallen world and I will not have my kids do so either. As the Syracuse professor said, there is an age-appropriate factor to media of all stripes and any children I have won’t be exposed to it until I, as their father, believe they are ready and (as the professor from New Orleans pointed out) know that it can be taught appropriately and within context, a Biblical context for that matter. As far as this new Huck Finn edition is concerned, I think the cultural critic was right about avoiding censorship. It doesn’t make the realities portrayed in the book go away and if you start there, what else will someone redact because they find it offensive? After all…
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana
What do you think? Should publishers remove racial slurs from classic books?