Read it, or befall the fate of Edwin Charringhouse.
With apologies to anyone who has ever been verbally assaulted by the use of the term, the word “nigger” matters.
A new edition of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is being released by NewSouth books with the text censored to remove the word “nigger” and replace it with “slave.” This galling decision has been done, claims Twain expert Alan Gribben, because, “Race matters in these books… It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”
I think Mr. Gribben has confused the importance of history and literature with contemporary mores and marketing.
Being a slave is a matter of current conditions. Being called a nigger is a matter of dehumanizing worldview. One could escape slavery. One could not escape the viral worldview that allowed it. To equate “slave” with “nigger” is to confuse a condition with a method. People were not called niggers because they were slaves. People were called slaves because they were controlled. People were called nigger because, in that worldview, they had no place, never did, and never should.
The use of “slavery” over “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn creates another problem. It equates slavery with blacks, which is not the full picture. There were (and sadly are) other slaves who were or are not black. The word nigger was a tool for slavery, but not the only tool.
Finally, the motive for this switch is, ultimately, cowardice. The motive is to avoid tough questions from children who might ask why it was okay for Mark Twain to write “nigger,” but it’s not okay for them to yell it at the park. It avoids difficult conversations with parents who object to their children reading a difficult word because they themselves don’t understand the opportunity to teach means facing horrible truths about our own past. It avoids the need to look boldly and bluntly at our own personal histories — ones not too far removed, a small number of decades you can count on one hand — back to an era where seeing a black American meant seeing someone who couldn’t vote, or couldn’t ride that bus, or couldn’t get a drink from a certain water fountain. It avoids confronting the truth of our present, where people still use the word in the most horrible of ways: as a means to attack not the actions or views of another, but as a means to attack that persons very right to exist, to stand, to speak.
That’s why the word “nigger” matters.