It’s not surprising that the latest edition of Mark Twain’s paired classics, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn,” will remove all traces of nigger and Injun from its pages when our leaders confuse books with bars, Charles Dickens’ words with Leo Tolstoy’s, and omit slavery from Confederate History Month. Our leaders obviously aren’t reading. So why should we care about an old book like Twain’s? Here are 10 reasons.
1. It’s Mark Twain. You know, the guy who said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” If he had wanted other words used, he would’ve used them.
2. Tampering with literature even if it’s not Mark Twain’s. It’s a simple case of censorship and it’s a bad idea. What’s next? Perhaps we will remove references to the Moors from Shakespeare. Wait—Thomas Bowdler is halfway there. He edited Shakespeare’s profanity and sexual content in the interests of younger readers.
3. Erasing racial epithets doesn’t erase race or racism. Actually, not talking about the “hurtful epithets” perpetuates racism because we’re never allowed to make corrections. The desire to be less racist doesn’t give us the right to erase someone’s words. Being less racist would mean that we’d be able to face those words and recognize their repugnance as a sign of how much we’re evolving.
4. It eliminates teachable moments. We’re teaching our children that no one should talk about race, not even dead or fictional people. We’re doing this because we adults don’t know how to talk about race. It’s like saying, “I don’t really know how to explain this … so forget it.” It’s a good thing that people like Isaac Newton, Copernicus or Thomas Edison didn’t give up so easily.
5. Freedom of choice. If you find this book offensive, don’t buy it or read it. There are plenty of books that none of us have an interest in reading for one reason or another. We don’t rewrite them. We simply choose not to read them. We don’t let others make that choice for us.
6. There were other options. Alan Gribben, the book’s editor, could’ve rewritten the story from a different perspective or context, like Gregory Maguire wrote “Wicked.” He could’ve rewritten “Huckleberry Finn” from Jim’s point of view to explain why these two terms are offensive. Or, he could’ve written a foreword that struggles truthfully with race, racism and the questionable terms in the book.
7. You can’t fight censorship with censorship. Twain’s critics said that they didn’t want their children exposed to hateful speech, so the book was banned in some places. Now Gribben is censoring Twain’s words in order to fight that censorship. His goal of “introducing Twain’s work to new readers” implies that his freedom of speech gives him the right to do so. But Gribben has conveniently plowed over Twain’s freedom of speech in the process. After all, Twain isn’t here to comment.
8. We’re not talking about the words that will replace nigger and Injun. While this could be an effective marketing ploy, the publishers should be as open about what they’ve added to the book as they are about what they’ve deleted. Fairness suggests that potential buyers and readers of the book should know how Gribben decided what the “less offensive words” would be.
9. Offensive terms are being invented and popularized right now. Why pick on historically offensive terms when offensive “buzzwords” are being invented today by living people? This week MSN’s “Business on Main” featured “10 Buzzwords You Need to Know.” No. 2 on the list was Jennifer Lopez. Usage: “I wouldn’t mind seeing a little more Jennifer Lopez (highly desirable rounding bottom of a stock’s price on its way up) on the NASDAQ.” The use of Lopez’s name in this context is definitely problematic, yet readers are told they must know about and even use it.
10. It’s coming from the “New South.” Actually, NewSouth is the name of the publisher. But some research I’m conducting reveals that there is a quiet movement called the New South that is about rewriting history, reviving the Confederacy and erasing the historical fact of slavery’s existence. Though the publisher does not appear to be connected to this New South movement, and doesn’t appear to have racist intent, it’s hard to ignore a shared revisionist impulse.
But the most important reason to stay true to Twain’s words is this. We’ve been reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” for over a century and it hasn’t stopped us from passing civil rights legislation, ending segregation in public schools, passing the Voting Rights Act, engaging in interracial relationships, appointing nonwhite members to the Supreme Court or electing nonwhite political officials, including our current president. So why, in 2011, do we suddenly need to change Twain’s books?
I think it’s because our desperate desire to free ourselves of racism has given way to the wishful thought that we’ve gotten beyond race. We believe that acknowledging race gives way to the inevitabilities of anger and retribution instead of the possibilities of healing and forgiveness. We’re wrong.
And we’re not beyond race either. There. I’ve said (and written) it.