A book publisher has generated quite a storm by deciding to replace "nigger" with "slave" in their forthcoming edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The word occurs more than 200 times in Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, and its 1876 precursor, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which tell the story of the boys' adventures along the Mississippi river in the mid-19th century. In the new edition, the word will be replaced in each instance by "slave". The word "injun" will also be replaced in the text.
The new edition's Alabama-based publisher, NewSouth books, says the development is a "bold move compassionately advocated" by the book's editor, Twain scholar Dr Alan Gribben of Auburn University, Montgomery. It will have the effect, the publisher claims, of replacing "two hurtful epithets" in order to "counter the 'pre-emptive censorship' that Dr Gribben observes has caused these important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists worldwide."
Gribben said he had decided on the move because over decades of teaching Twain, and reading sections of the text aloud, he had found himself recoiling from uttering the racial slurs in the words of the young protagonists. "The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups," he said. "As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact."
This is backwards, though. It is precisely because the word is uncomfortable that we should be confronting it. Let's talk to kids about this word and other slurs. Let them answer questions like:
- Which characters are using the word?
- How do they mean it?
- What other words are used similarly in the book and today?
- Why is it be bad to call someone by a slur like this?
- Is it okay for an author to use the word the way Twain does?
This gets kids to think about words and their power. Hiding from them (or any other "bad" thing) does not make them go away. It allows them to linger and continue poisoning the discourse around them. We need to bring them out in the open and boldly confront them. That is the only way to deal with stuff like this and move beyond it. Pretending it doesn't exist whether by Orwellian editing or not teaching it in the classroom only makes things worse.