Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Changing words . . . charged words

I'm an English professor who blogs, so it's not going to come as a surprise to read that I believe words matter A LOT. Words allow us to voice and describe our experiences--words allow us to shape and name experiences. Words, quite literally, have helped us to survive. And as someone who respects the written word, especially the published written word in book form, I take seriously anyone who wants to change or amend or (GASP) should dare plagiarize anyone else's words.

So this morning when I opened my email, I found an article sent to me by a family member, "G" about a scholar who is releasing versions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer in which the word "nigger" is replaced by the word "slave" and in which "Injun Joe" is not "Indian Joe" and "half-breed" is now referred to as "half-blood."

In other words, potentially racially offensive epithets/slurs have been taken out and replaced with more benign versions.

Can everyone hear Mark Twain rolling over in his grave?

The scholar in question, Alan Gribben, believes that by taking out charged words, especially THE charged word, "nigger," readers (and school districts/teachers/professors) will be more likely to teach these particular Twain works to their students. After all, Huck Finn is one of the most widely banned books in the country, because of its invocation (219 times) of the word "nigger."

Gribbens move, while seemingly well intentioned, seems absolutely wrong-headed. First, I don't think you should ever edit someone else's writing without their permission, and since Twain is dead, we should let well enough alone. Second, I think it's possible to teach Huck Finn and have a discussion of the overuse of the word "nigger" and what Twain may have been doing by having his title character evoke this epithet again and again--in other words, Huck using this word has everything to do with his class status, his regional location, and not necessarily with his attitude about black slaves or African Americans. Third, if we don't read Huck Finn anymore, the world will continue turning on its access--I am not someone who believes in preserving the "canon" of American literature--so making a more "user-friendly" version of Huck Finn just to get people to read it seems ... stupid. Do I think it's great literature? Maybe. Am I glad I read it? I needed to read it as someone who studies American literature. Can students read other works of American literature, ones that deal with slavery and the South without having the word "nigger" appear? Sure...but understanding this charged word in context--understanding the nature of racial slurs, and the extremely provocative and violent nature of this particular racist epithet, would be very educational.

Finally, I've deliberately NOT referred to the "N" word in this blog post--which I know is a controversial thing to do and something that I'm trying to sort out with how I feel about offensive language/phrases and my own usage. In general, my stance as a teacher has been to talk about the slur in context--and to explain to students that when it appears in the text, it is not meant to offend them but that we need to understand the racial climate in which the word appears. When John Steinbeck writes about "Chinks" and "Chinamen" or other authors invoke phrases like "wet back" or "half breed" or "fag"-- they may or may not reflect the attitude of the author but they definitely convey information about the character who is voicing those slurs. And within the context of the story, that is important. It also tells us something about the social attitudes and cultural milieu of the setting of the work.

But the word "nigger"--IS the "N" word--and what I mean by that is, it's not like the other slurs I just listed above. There is no other equivalent. Not even a word I absolutely hate, "cunt," comes close to the level of linguistic violence that I think the word "nigger" does. No other slur has also had such a varied and controversial current usage--popping up frequently in the lyrics of African American hip hop and rap artists, used by black comedians, and invoked, colloquially, among African Americans in terms of affection and familiarity. If you do a google search, you will come across a very disturbing array of links (I didn't click on any of them--they were too scary) to jokes--which I think is very telling because jokes are one of the insidious ways in which we, as a culture, can keep people under surveillance. No one wants to be the butt of a joke--to be made fun of--to be laughed at. And this word in particular has been invoked, very specifically, by white Americans to target black Americans. Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor, has written a book detailing the history of this word, and you can click here on an insightful review of it and the slur.

So should we retire the word? Should we only refer to "nigger" as the "N" word? Does even reading the word in the context of this blog post seem too jarring, too upsetting, too violent? I certainly think that it should never be used as a racial slur. I also believe that as someone who has never had to endure the pain of being called this particular racial epithet, I can't speak to the psychic damage of hearing it or seeing it in print, and the potentially recuperative power of using it as an in-group expression of solidarity. But I also wonder about masking the word by saying "N" word in its place. As someone who believes in being honest in language, saying "N" word seems to give it a power that I don't want the word to have anymore.

But let me end with this bit of stand up by Danny Glover, who does have some opinions about who should and should not ever use this word:
Donald Glover - Can't Say It
JokesJoke of the DayFunny Jokes


The CLAMShack: said...

i have been debating this with my friends.....all who are old and white. and they all see EVERYTHING wrong with the change and NOTHING wrong with the use of the "racially charged words" in the book. Even my husband who is white has told me that he is "sitting on the fence" on this one. To which I screamed, "what?! how can you be sitting on the fence?!" As I spent the first day this story broke, decidedly on the side of the "2 scholars" who were bringing about this new edition. Thinking that this would be GREAT for all those kids who previously weren't allowed to read this book, because of the ban. And how perfect it would be for my own read it without "those words", because they are still so young, but are voracious readers and are capable of reading at a level well past their years! And tongue-lashing those old and white folks on my facebook page about the error of their thinking! And now 3 days later, after I have processed this whole thing, I have now come to the conclusion that yes, I am still glad that there will be a new edition for those kids that previously weren't allowed to read this book. And have decided that the boys will in fact, be handed the book to read in which Mark Twain meant for it to be read. And when they come across the ugly words, we will then be able to have a discussion and conversation about those words....just like we have a discussion and conversation about ALL of the uncomfortable stuff that they wonder about. I am proud to say that we do NOT "bubble wrap" our kids. So now, I suppose I am "sitting on that fence" with my husband. I can see the good of the new edition, but I can also see the good of the old edition. :) thanks!

Anonymous said...

I almost don't feel like I can have a concrete opinion about this one - simply because as much as I abhor what I see as a sugarcoating of the text, I also am not in a place to appreciate the harm done to people who will experience the word as a slur regardless of the context. I'm also thinking that school is a vicious enough place for the odd-kids-out (racially or otherwise) without throwing more fuel on the fire, so to speak.

Then again, I'm not really a fan of "classic" American literature, (I didn't like Huck Finn any better than A Separate Peace, or The Scarlet Letter) either, so part of me just wants to sigh and tell folks to find something better to read. /shrug.

david said...

I'm one who doesn't like the new "edition" of Huck Finn. I believe by leaving those words in there, we can learn at how damaging they are and the fall out that those words have left.

I'm also one who doesn't like censoring of books, because, we've seen it before in the past century in other parts of the world let alone our own nation.

When I was still going to my community college, before I transferred, I got to see the list of banned books and books that have been banned before and it shocked my to see what was banned. I hear that Harry Potter is banned as well(which is ridiculous).

If we don't learn from the past then how are we ever going to fix problems in this country?

I still think classic American Literature is good to read. It can be a good way to help people write better and improve one's grammar skills.

Jennifer said...

Hi everyone,
Sorry to be so late in replying. I won't specifically respond to everyone's comments (which I really appreciate by the way--that you do leave comments! Thank you!) but I do have a few more observations after re-reading them now.

*I don't think this is a censorship issue. I mean, the fact that people ban Twain's book from libraries is an issue of censorship. But choosing not to teach Twain, that's a decision not to teach Twain, even if it's about his use of an offensive epithet. And it's not about Twain, it's about this one book--you can teach other Twain books, ones in which you can talk about race (like PUDDN'HEAD WILSON--The CLAMShack, you may want to check it out for your kids). I think we often confuse censorship for other issues, and this is an "other issue" for me--changing his language. It is more akin to a type of plagiarism than censorship, because essentially Gribben has used his own language in someone else's writing.

*Like lovepeaceohana, I'm not married to classic American literature. Like everything else, there's a politics to canon formation. Should kids read 19th C. literature? Yes. But maybe it should be INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL (Harriet Jacobs) or other works of African Americans to give us a sense of what slavery and black-white relations were really like. Books come in and out of vogue throughout the centuries. It's not the end of the world if we stop teaching Huck Finn as required reading in our public schools and kids who want to read lit in college will still have it assigned.

Unknown said...


Jennifer said...

Thanks for the correction sean ribaudo, she says after reeling from the ALL CAPS and exclamation marks of sean's comment.