The Adventures of Huckleb**** Finn

My dear old friend Mark Twain is in the news again now that a publishing company intends to replace the n-word in his books The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer with "slave." This move has prompted an overwhelming outcry from the public. A lot of people are speaking out against censorship and in favor of preserving significant works of literature, which the English major in me thinks is great.

But in this case, I don't agree with the public at large. Quit being so hyperbolic.

I just don't think it's that bad of an idea. Now if some overlord were demanding that all copies of this book be censored, I'd gladly be grabbing a pitchfork, too. But this is a single edition of a book meant to appeal to a subsection of people who feel more comfortable reading it that way, not replace the original entirely. For the countless school districts who have banned these books, this niche edition is an opportunity to put a historically relevant text back into the hands of students.

In the unfortunate age of permission slips, it's nearly impossible to get everyone on board. Half the time, kids will fake a moral objection in a mistaken hope that they'll get excused from the work entirely. Plus, there's always that one parent. Teachers, specifically English teachers, are overworked enough, it's not reasonable to expect them to create a second set of lesson plans and divide instructional time for another book, too. The only feasible approach is to teach the inoffensive option to everyone.

Don't get me wrong: if I were permitted to, I would teach the original version. So many of my students used the n-word freely anyway, it would have been a good jumping point to discuss the word and social context (as we did with To Kill a Mockingbird.) Even with the altered book, it'd be entirely appropriate for the teacher to lead a discussion about the censorship issue; the new edition of the book addresses the change in its introduction. Besides, if you believe that the message and relevance of the books hinge upon the use of the n-word, you're missing the larger point and should give it another read.

To some extent, I think that people are missing the point in this debate. To me, the book amendment speaks more to modern issues of race, language, and power than censorship of literature. It's about the word nigger. Nigger, nigger, nigger. Does that make you uncomfortable? It makes me uncomfortable to type it. Probably most of the most liberal, forward-thinking people you know don't use that word. I'm largely anti-censorship, but with notable exceptions like the above, I censor myself from using the n-word. For a variety of reasons, it's not something I permit in my vernacular.

Words are only as powerful as their speakers deem them. I can think of no other word in the English language that, for better or worse, has been assigned so much power. The new Huck Finn book is merely reflecting our society's mixed emotions toward the n-word. Heck, go read five editorials on this issue right now. In many cases, even the writers most opposed to eliminating "nigger" from Twain's texts are unwilling to actually spell out the word in their articles. How can we condemn censorship of a word that today's society - even its critics - actively censors?

Maybe I'm in the wrong on this debate. Maybe this change will in fact lead to a slippery slope, and before I know it, the words in my own blog will be censored. If that happens, I'll be the first to apologize... if they let me.

In an act of disclosure, I used to work at The Mark Twain House, which vehemently opposes this change, so perhaps my stance makes me a traitor. Although in befriending Jim, Huck was also considered a traitor, so I'll wear that badge with pride today.

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