Black educators and scholars remain divided over the decision to purge the n-word from Mark Twain’s classic “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
The years of critical acclaim—and disdain—of the use of that and other racial epithets in the text have lead to the widespread banning of the book in the nation’s school districts. Now a major publisher has announced it will replace incendiary words with more acceptable ones in a new edition of Huck Finn.
Alabama-based NewSouth Publishing announced in early January it would replace 200-plus n-word references in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” with “slave” and other less offensive phrases. Since its publishing in 1885, literary critics have struggled to determine whether the book is an attack on racism or a satirical confirmation of stereotypes rampant during the late 1800s. According to the American Library Association, a nonprofit group that promotes library education worldwide, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was the fifth most banned book during the ’90s.
But Syracuse University professor and cultural commentator Boyce Watkins said he believes removing the “n-word” makes the text more palpable for today’s school children and therefore, more useful in modern classrooms.
“The fundamental question I would ask is, ‘Can you still make the point of this brilliant novel without using this word 219 times?’ I think that you can,” Watkins told CNN. “The question for me also is whether or not it makes sense to force kids in school to hear this word over and over again to make that point. When I was in high school, I wouldn’t have wanted to read that book. I think made the right move.”
The publisher stood behind its decision to pull the hot-button word, citing Dr. Alan Gribben, internationally recognized Mark Twain scholar, who approves of the revised text.
“At NewSouth, we saw the value in an edition that would help the works find new readers,” company officials wrote. “If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain’s works will be more emphatically fulfilled.”
While removing the word may make Twain’s work more appropriate for younger readers, some African-American scholars say NewSouth’s modified edition “whitewashes” an American masterpiece and creates a slew of social ills.
Micahela Angela Davis, a former editor at Essence magazine and social commentator, decried the revised book.
“I think this is problematic on so many levels. It’s not just history, it’s literature, so it’s art,” Davis told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “When we get into really censoring art and censoring literature, we open up a Pandora’s box. If a teacher is not prepared to have a social and historical conversation and place this masterpiece in context, is she prepared to teach that text? When we get into changing words, unwriting history, rearranging art, we start to put our democracy in danger. This is not making it palpable, it’s censorship.”
Ironically, film critic Roger Ebert showed just how contentious the n-word remains days after NewSouth’s announcement. In a post on Twitter, Ebert—who is married to an African-American woman—wrote, “I’d rather be called a n—-r than a Slave.” After angry responses from hundreds of Twitter followers, Ebert apologized, saying, “I’ll never be called a n—-r or a Slave, so I should have shut the —- up.”