Huck Finn and the dreaded N word

There was a story on 60 Minutes a month or two ago about a new, friendlier version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The publishers have removed the word “nigger” and replaced it with “slave.”  The publisher states this is so the book can be used in school without the stigma of that taboo word.

The story featured two teachers.  They were both teaching the unedited version of the book.  One teacher would say, “n-word” while the other said, “nigger.”  Both teachers were white women.  From my memory the teacher who said “n-word” stated she was not comfortable saying that word and wanted the conversation to be about more than just race.  The other teacher said she wanted to have a conversation about race and found that by talking about the word “nigger” it opened up the class.  I could be remembering this incorrectly.

The other person featured in the story is a professor of some note.  He could be a professor of African American studies, but I believe he was a professor of Literature.  He is African-American.  He is often consulted when a class is going to study Huck Finn, word “nigger” and all.  He stated that when he teaches the book he makes the entire class say “nigger” several times to get it out of the way.  He also says he loves the word.  It’s the framing of the word that makes it negative.  And it doesn’t like the new publication that removes the word in favor of the word “slave.”

The publisher of the “slave” version grew up in pre/post civil rights Alabama.  He grew up a racist, but through education and life experience he learned he was wrong, and hates the word “nigger.”

The reporter on the story is also African-American.

Now my thoughts.

I am not a big fan of censorship of any kind.  I’m also not a fan of the word “nigger.”  I don’t think it’s my place to legislate the word either since I’m lily white.  But with this book I find it to be a case of a well intentioned white person, suffering from white guilt, going way over the line.  It is not the responsibility of this generation to retroactively clean up our history.  Should we not teach American History because there’s a lot of ugliness in it? Just teach from WWI on and brush over the Civil Rights movement.

The word “nigger” has tremendous power, but I think it’s mostly in the mind.  It is, after all, just a word.  I will say this…I grew up in California.  I’m white.  I’m male.  I have never experienced any form of discrimination.  I’ve been pulled over by the police a total of once in my life and that was because I was missing the front license plate on my truck.  For over 10 years.  That’s how white I am.  I lived in the South for three years and did see discrimination in action, but to give the word this kind of power is a mistake.  I give it this power, but I don’t know how not to give it that power.  When I hear it, or write it here, there is an emotional feeling.  It’s not like writing, say, peanut butter.  That’s how I know we’re not living in post racial America.  I’m really digressing now.

Okay…Keep the book the same.  That way you can have an honest discussion about race in a safe environment and hopefully this generation behind me will not give the word the power we give it.  And hopefully I made sense here.

To close I will share my first experience with the word.

When I was 7 or 8 my buddy and I were playing with his G.I. Joes(I wasn’t allowed to have them.  They were too violent…ugh).  The theme song goes, “G.I. Joe….Greatest American hero…”  We changed it to, “G.I. Joe…Greatest American Negro.”  I had no clue what a Negro was, but I thought it was hilarious.  I don’t think I had any black friends at this time.  We lived in Chico, and I’m pretty sure there were no black kids in my class, swim team, soccer team, neighborhood.  I got my first “ethnic” friends when we moved to Sacramento.  Again…digressing.

Fast forward to the next day when my father and I were out in the car.  My dad gets very serious.  He tells me he heard the song we were singing and how it was not appropriate at all.  That that word is very hurtful.  I said, “What word.”  He says, “Nigger.”  Me, “What’s nigger?  We were singing negro.”  He corrected me on negro, too.

My father doesn’t have a racial bone in his body.  I honestly don’t think he sees race.  One of his oldest friends is Floyd Brown(google him) who he met while they were both getting their starts in radio.  I aspire to not see race, but I’m not yet there.

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