Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Nigger Just Ain't A Nigger No Mo' - The Censoring of Twain's Huckleberry Finn

In a recent post on Psychology Today, Dr. Mikhail Lyubansky of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign talks about the plan by publisher NewSouth Books (by the name of the publisher you should get where this post is going) to release a new, annotated (people who aren't full of shit say censored) version of the famous Mark Twain novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". In the new version of Twain's seminal novel, racially charged words such as "nigger" and "injun" will be replaced by the more politically correct terms "slave" and "indian".

As Twain expert Alan Gribben told Publisher's Weekly, "Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century." Dr. Lyubansky, who teaches a course on the psychology of race and ethnicity, has tried to accomplish just this feat in his classroom by quoting literature and scholars that deal with the issues of race and ethnicity. Sometimes, in the midst of these lessons, the word "nigger" will appear in the text. Dr. Lyubansky used to pronounce this word aloud but, due to backlash from some of his students, he has begun to use "the N-Word" in lieu of it's controversial cousin. The issue of interest is where most of the ire for his use of the N-Word came from.

"See, all of the students who complained that hearing "nigger" in class was painful were white and so it seems is the vast proportion of people who a) kept Huckleberry Finn off the school curriculum and b) like the idea of a "cleaner" version of Mark Twain's novel. Now I don't want to over-stress this point. The feelings and needs of white people matter too. It's why I switched to using "N-word" in my class. But the source of the discomfort is not irrelevant either. For one, it suggests whose needs are being considered and served by the given act. As far as I can tell, the new (edited) edition of Huck Finn is primarily designed to serve the needs of white conservatives. This too is okay, as long as we acknowledge that this is what's happening and not pretend that this is some kind of racially progressive act that will improve the lives of people of color."

I agree with Dr. Lyubansky that the publishing of this new, censored version of one of Twain's masterpieces may be primarily designed to appease the sensibilities of white conservatives. For many white people in America, many of whom do not self-identify as being politically conservative, it may be difficult to come face-to-face with the historical narrative that has contributed significantly to the privilege that they now enjoy. The very nature of the racial/ethnic identification of being "white" is derived from and developed in direct opposition to being "black" in America with all of its various social and cultural implications. Put another way, identifying oneself as being "white" is akin to identifying oneself as being "non-ethnic" (If being Irish or German isn't an ethnicity what is it, a pathology?). I also believe that the removal of racially charged terms from books like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" serves to further subvert the concept of racism in our society, furthering the myth that we now live in a "post-racial" America. However, this misreading of history is not confined solely to the white community.

In July of 2007, the NAACP symbolically buried the N-Word in a ceremony in Detroit, MI. Then Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick lauded the ceremony as a purging of the epithet from our spirits. "Today we're not just burying the N-word, we're taking it out of our spirit. We gather burying all the things that go with the N-word. We have to bury the pimps and the hos that go with it." Kilpatrick's political career was later buried when it was discovered that he sent sexual explicit text messages to a female staffer (not his wife) using a city-provided phone proving once again that we should all be wary of what we wish for. I digress.

The same line of thinking present in white communities, which asserts that if we close our eyes and pretend like nothing happened then it didn't, is present in black communities as well. This is irresponsible and dangerous thinking for a few reasons. Firstly, from a purely linguistic standpoint, it eliminates yet another word from the overly simplified, ever-decreasing pool of words available to us in an English language under constant bombardment from the growing popularity of texting and social media such as Twitter. Secondly, and perhaps more dangerous than the simple removal of a word from the lexicon is, the elimination of a word such as the N-Word from the English language also eliminates the social and political constructs that the word represents (again, a symptom or maybe the cause of the myth of post-racialism in America).

As Dr. Lyubansky quoted law professor Paul Butler as saying in Butler's recent New York Times piece, "I suffered through Huckleberry Finn in high school, with the white kids going out of their way to say "Nigger Jim" and the teacher's tortured explanation that Twain's "nigger" didn't really mean nigger, or meant it ironically, or historically, or symbolically. Whatever." While I am sympathetic towards Butler's quiet suffering in high school and the unease of Dr. Lyubansky's white college students, they are both quintessential elements, which assure that the historical social interactions between whites and people of color that Twain illustrates in Huckleberry Finn continue to inform our contemporary discussions on race relations on a micro level and inextricable link between race relations and all of our human rights in the bigger picture.

It appears to be commonplace in our society to remove, replace, or even bury words, people, and things that make us uncomfortable. In much the same way that burying the dead is ultimately a perfunctory act when viewed outside of the lens of religion, burying or discontinuing the use of the N-Word will only serve to erect an eternal monument to our social and political cowardice, providing no edification or growth for the effort expended (and, unfortunately, monuments to nothingness are what some people want). Instead, we should do the hard thing and leave words like "nigger" in the texts that we study not only to garner the historical implications of its use but also as a catalyst for discussions, preferably in mixed-race groupings, about what emotions arise when we hear or see the word and how we can move those emotions towards an active understanding of our relationship to the N-Word that can't help but to lead towards that more perfect union that our nation's Founding Father envisioned.