Huck Finn and Slave Jim

Huck Finn and Slave Jim float down the Mississippi in search of adventure and freedom in a newly edited version of Mark Twain’s classic designed for schools. Injun Joe is now Indian Joe. Clarence Page eloquently defends Twain’s original language, even though it’s kept the book off some school reading lists.  Teach the conflict, Page writes.

As a result of complains from black children, who say the word causes them pain and inspires bullies, Huckleberry Finn “has begun to be marginalized ironically into Twain’s definition of a ‘classic,’ a work ‘which people praise and don’t read’,” Page writes. Educators dread dealing with hurt feelings.

As a black kid who read “Huck” in a mostly white classroom with a white teacher, I know the unsettling startling pain of seeing the N-word used so casually in print. But I also am eternally grateful to our teacher for helping us to talk about it. She helped us to appreciate the book’s genius of language, vision and, most memorable, its quietly subversive satirical cleverness. It skewers the immorality of white supremacy that it so vividly portrays.

Young Huck’s moral compass is warped by his drunken, brutal father and the culture in which Huck was raised, as his casual use of the N-word illustrates. Escaping his father, he unexpectedly teams up with the slave Jim. He feels guilty at first about helping his neighbor’s “property” escape. Yet as he gets to know Jim and his desire to rescue his wife and children, the slave becomes a better father figure than the one Huck left behind. To me, the book is that rare classic that I not only praise but still enjoy reading.

Editing the language “also risks taking away its edge, the risky subversive power of Twain’s words and story that kept my classmates and me awake, alert and talking about it,” Page writes.

I think Page makes a great case, but I know many more students will read the book if teachers don’t have to deal with the “n-word.” It’s a word I never write on this blog, because I don’t want to deal with it.

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Comments

  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Not sure that the word itself causes pain and encourages bullies. I think that’s a handy excuse, as in lie.
    That it has been anointed with cooties which means that anybody who uses it can be slandered and anything they say afterwards dismissed without having to acctually discuss it.
    Several years ago, a black prof at an eastern college said that some of his black students had come to him in various stages of emotional meltdown because David Horowitz might show up on campus to speak against reparations. It might be true, but that’s not the way to bet. Either the prof was lying, or the kids had figured out that faking emotional distress gave them moral authority.
    Same-same.

  2. “. I think that’s a handy excuse, as in lie.”

    Exactly. What, this kid never had any black friends who said, “What’s up, n____?” And if he didn’t, he was an outlier.

  3. Jews have no problem discussing the word “kike” and Hispanics have no problem discussing the word “spic” and no one feels obligated to say “the k-word” or the “s-word” or the “w-word” (do you know what this one is?) and if we talked like this consistently no one would ever know what we were talking about. This hysteria about the-word-that-must-not-be-named is pure theater.

  4. Belinda Gomez says:

    But claiming that you’re wounded is so important to victim status.

  5. Richard Nieporent says:

    I think Page makes a great case, but I know many more students will read the book if teachers don’t have to deal with the “n-word.” It’s a word I never write on this blog, because I don’t want to deal with it.

    That Joanne is their loss. We must not bowdlerize a book in the hope that by not offending anyone more people will read it. What’s the point of reading a book if we are more concerned about who may be offended by it than by what the book’s message is.

  6. Coincidentally, I had just reread Huckleberry Finn a couple of weeks ago. It is magnificent (except for the last quarter or so, which is terrible). Anyway, two points about the use of the n-word in this book.

    1. As has been pointed out elsewhere, to replace the n-word wholesale by “slave” really distorts the situation. Jim is NOT a slave, since by his own volition he has freed himself. Much of the jeopardy of Huck and Jim’s situation is that N-Jim might be re-enslaved. [Spoiler alert: part of the weakness of the last section involves the fact that Miss Watson has died and freed Jim in her will, which dramatically makes little sense, just like the whole bit involving Tom Sawyer at the end; all of this tends to work against what the author has built up to that point.] At any rate, “slave” and “n_____” are not really synonymous. A free black man might be a n_____ but not a slave. Jim, for example.

    2. In a sense, the n-word is not even pejorative in this book. It is not, for example, like words such as “Chink, “Spic”, and so on. These words, and the n-word in our time, are pejoratives for which non-pejorative alternatives exist. In the time of slavery, I believe that n_____ was the only common noun to designate black people in North America. It wasn’t that the word was pejorative, so much as that these people were only considered 3/5 people at best. (I exaggerate, since I believe that abolitionists did not use the n-word.) In St. Petersburg MO, Huck’s hometown, there was no other word available to describe Jim. Except to people like Huck, who call him, well, “Jim”.
    3. To LTEC’s comment, the n-word is unique among racial epithets. It just is, and it is a kind of theater to pretend that it is not.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    bky. It is, because it’s been accepted to be. There is no inherent reality to that status.

  8. Is there no edition of Huck Finn that does exactly what the commenters here are doing, namely, replacing the offending word with “n___” or “n***”?

  9. This is all about limiting Free Speech. After all, censorship is everywhere. The gov’t (and their big business cronies) censor free speech, shut down dissent and ban the book “America Deceived II”. Free speech for all, especially Mark Twain.
    Last link (before Google Books bans it also]:
    http://www.iuniverse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000190526

  10. Katharine: not that I’ve seen. Generally when we read a book with that word in it (ie. Of Mice and Men, The Piano Lesson, A Raisin in the Sun, etc.), I ask the class to decide what word they’ll substitute. Works fine. They know the issues.

  11. GoogleMaster says:

    I guess no one ever teaches the complete Joseph Conrad canon anymore, then. Or if they do, do they call it “N—– of the Narcissus“?

  12. I”m glad BKY brought up the last quarter of the book, during which Tom withholds the fact that Jim has been freed by his (now dead) owner so that he (Tom) can engage in a drawn-out drama based on “rescuing” Jim. That section of the book was, to me, much more horrible than the n-word. It paints a picture of a youth who could so thoughtlessly prolong Jim’s fear and desperation merely in order to stage-direct a useless charade in which he himself gets to star. That shows, more than any adjective could, how little Jim’s personhood counted in Tom’s eyes (and Tom was one of the more sympathetic characters in the book when it came to the issue of slavery).

  13. j.d salinger says:

    It used to be that Negro was the preferred usage and even now, that has taken on pejorative qualities. “Black” was also used, and now that’s considered gauche. Now you have to say African American, or person of color.

  14. Nice post, Joanne.

    there are lots of disturbing and hateful things out there. Pretending they don’t exist doesn’t make them go away, nor does it protect our children. There are also numerous works of fiction that have become mainstays of public education that are full of other horrors, often celebrated, too. Just consider the garbage in many of our history textbooks.

    It’s up to us as educators to use these as teachable moments and create a safe venue for our students to explore these issues.

  15. I was saddened to hear that anybody is seriously considering editing Mark Twain or John Steinbeck.

    A few years ago, such an idea would have been unthinkable.

    That fact that it’s even being considered now is a triumph for ignorance.

  16. What is forgotten is that this is censorship, plain and simple. 1984 stuff, brought to you with the help of the friendly employees in your government schools. Lord, help us.

  17. This is censorship, plain and simple, brought to you by the friendly employees in your government schools. 1984 stuff, down the memory hole, and all that.

  18. Michael E. Lopez says:

    That’s all I have to say on this matter.

  19. anon, it’s not employees of the government schools who are censoring or who want it censored. don’t make sweeping generalizations, as they are never true.

  20. Curiously, Mark Twain address this very issue in an explanatory note opening the book:

    http://etext.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=Twa2Huc.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=front

    EXPLANATORY

    IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

    I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.

    THE AUTHOR.

  21. Yes, sweeping generalizations are never true but there is still a possibility that other people will come up with similar proposals to change a particular novel because a certain word doesn’t seem right. This may fuel a chain reaction with a damaging impact on our literature.

  22. I think what is happening is that a sanitized edition is being printed which schools and individuals would have the option to buy. This happens all of the time with music. While I wouldn’t buy that edition I wouldn’t call it censorship.

  23. It is to our own detriment that the forces of shallowness and celebrity have permeated our culture in such a way the individual words have more importance than the written work as a whole. Twain was indicting the racist attitudes of the day. He did so by revealing their ignorance to a public that probably secretly agreed with many of the most racist precepts. He was skewering their hypocrisy by showing them a mirror of their real selves. He did similar things in “Letters from the Earth” when he outlined the differences between the Professional Christian and the Professing Christian. Twain was not naive when it came to word selection. He was intelligent enough to know it would get a response. That we have mindless droids running publishing companies who think it’s just peachy to change words that cause the stuff of literature to become nothing more than drivel is a testament to the mindset of those currently running the media. Shame on them all. I hope the Ghost of Twain haunts them until their sorry publishing enterprises sink into oblivion.

  24. j.d salinger says: “It used to be that Negro was the preferred usage and even now, that has taken on pejorative qualities.”

    “Nigger” is “Negro” pronounced with a southern accent. Since most blacks have a thick southern accent…