In my American literature class, during our discussion of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huck Finn, the debate that erupted last year over the removal of the N-word from the book was brought up. I didn’t really pay that much attention to this last year, but the discussion was very interesting. There are convincing arguments for those who support and oppose replacing this word, and it’s worth discussing.
Last year, the NewSouth publishing company in Alabama decided to publish Mark Twain’s book about Huck Finn, but this time the offensive racial slur would be replaced with “slave.” This sparked a controversy throughout the country, as can be summed up from the 60 minutes piece here, which was very well done in my opinion, and provides a great overview of the debate.
For the publishing company and the gentleman who speaks for it in the 60 minutes piece, the main argument is a noble one. The basic argument is that this book should be taught to students, and there should be an edition of the book that replaces this offensive term so that it will be accessible for more students and teachers in more schools. This certainly makes sense, as the book is a fantastic piece of American literature which I think should be taught to as many students as possible, but many teachers refuse to use it and some schools have banned it because of its uncomfortable nature, as Twain uses the term over 200 times in the book.
On the other side of the argument, many find this incomprehensible because it will fundamentally change the nature of the work. Twain was well aware of the word “slave” and the N-word when he wrote the book, and he deliberately chose to use the latter. Furthermore, as Professor David Bradley argues in the 60 minutes piece, the N-word and “slave” do not have the same meaning. The latter, he argues, is a state of being that can be occupied by someone of any color. The former, however, represents shame, hate and degradation. As Bradley argues, this word and its underlying meaning and effect is a part of what made slavery possible in the first place, and to replace it is to fundamentally alter the book.
Although I tend to agree more with Bradley’s take on this, I do see where NewSouth is coming from. In some parts of the country, especially where the book is being taught in a classroom with very few African-American students, where the teacher and vast majority of the school is white, this can be very offensive and uncomfortable for students of color. On the other hand, one can make a convincing case that changing this word does so much to alter the book that it’s not even the same work.
In our class, our professor went over this the day before we read it, and said we would use the word while reading passages allowed and referring to the book in class. Everyone seemed very comfortable with this. Moreover, when the debate came up in discussion, everyone in the class seemed to express the opinion that you cannot take this word out because it would destroy the work. The difference here, however, is that this was a college classroom, where everyone was able to engage in this conversation in a mature and respectable way.
Here’s my 2 cents. I see the point of publishing the book with the word replaced, but I just think it does too much to alter the work in general—it’s just not the same. Especially if you read the work through, and think about if every time you saw this word used in such a disgusting manner it would instead be replaced with “slave,” there’s just no denying that it would be a fundamentally different effect.
Because in some classrooms this would just be too much for some students to handle, I think the book should be taught only in junior or senior level high-school classroom settings, or college classrooms, where there is an appropriate level of maturity to deal with these sensitive issues. I think this would allow for this very important piece of American literature to be taught in its original and intended form, but be done so in a way as not to make students and teachers severely uncomfortable or even offended, neither of which has a place in any classroom.
The counterargument here would be that since it’s only taught in advanced classrooms or at the college level, some students would not get to experience it. If there are groups of students, however, that are not mature enough to handle the work as it is, we need to fix that rather than tone down the book. Moreover, if there are still conditions existing that make the reading of the original book so uncomfortable and intimidating that it must be changed, then we have a bigger problem that needs to be solved. It seems as though changing the word attempts to cover up an uncomfortable aspect of our history, but we should be confronting and understanding that history so we can learn from it, rather than altering it.