Rev Irene Monroe

Huckleberry Finn's N-word: Artistic Integrity or Ethnic Property Rights?

Filed By Rev Irene Monroe | January 13, 2011 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Alan Gribben, censorship, Mark Twain, n-word, New South Books, racial, racism, slur

As Americans we have a hard time talking about race in this country when the n-word is not involved. And when this epithet is, predictably, we behave schizophrenically.

huckleberry-finn.jpgAnd much of the kerfuffle is about who's staking a claim on its use.

The now recent kerfuffle concerning the n-word is focused on Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known fondly to us as Mark Twain, and the New South Books edition of the 1885 controversial classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In a combined effort to rekindle interest in this Twain classic and to tamp down the flame and fury the use of the n-word engenders both from society and readers alike, who come across the epithet 219 times in the book, Mark Twain scholar and English professor at Auburn University in Alabama Alan Gribben proposed to replace the n-word with the word "slave."

"The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language. As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact. Even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative," Gribben writes in the introduction of the new edition.

I think for grade and middle school students, the word should be removed. I remember reading the text as a sixth grader at a predominately white public school in Brooklyn and suffering mightily from both the teacher's inept ability to contextualize the text and from my classmates' insensitivity concerning the epithet. But several years later, unfortunately, I experienced "deja vu all over again" with this text. This time, I was a first year student at Wellesley College and suffering mightily, because of the professor's ineptitude in contextualizing the use of racist language.

Gribben's intent in substituting the epithet with the word "slave" is to make the book user-friendly for a certain school-age group so that a teachable moment on the inflammatory use of racial epithets can be civilly addressed and analyzed in a learning environment. However, because of an often volatile reaction to Twain's use of the n-word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we miss not only the intended lesson but also the beauty of the story and the bonding that take place between Huck (the protagonist) and Jim (an adult enslaved African American who escaped from slavery) because both are runaways trying to reach freedom.

I am troubled, however, in this recent kerfuffle concerning the n-word how many of us African Americans, in particular, go back and forth on its politically correct use.

Let's do a walk down memory lane.

In December 2006 we blamed Michael Richards, who played the lovable and goofy character Kramer on the TV sitcom "Seinfeld" for using the n-word. The racist rant was heard nationwide and shocked not only his fans and audience that night at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, but it also shocked Americans back to an ugly era in U.S. history.

In July 2008 we heard the Rev. Jessie Jackson used the n-word referring to Obama. And Jackson using the word not only reminded us of its history but also how the n-word can slip so approvingly from the mouth of a man who was part of a cadre of African Americans leaders burying the n-word once and for all in mock funeral at the 98th annual NAACP's convention in Detroit in 2007.

And in 2009 Dr. Laura Schlessinger ending her radio show, a week after she broadcast a five-minute-long rant in which she used the n-word 11 times.

In 2003, the NAACP convinced Merriam-Webster lexicographers to change the definition of the n-word in the dictionary to no longer mean African Americans but instead to be defined as a racial slur. And, while the battle to change the n-word in the American lexicon was a long and arduous one, our culture's neo-revisionist use of the n-word makes it even harder to purge the sting of the word from the American psyche.

We must, as Americans, look at the systemic problem of what happens when an epithet like the n-word, which was once hurled at African Americans in this country and banned from polite conversation, now has a broad-based cultural acceptance in our society today.

Popularized by young African Americans' use of it in hip hop music, the bantering and bickering over this word today is no longer about who has been harmed or hurt by its use, but who has the right to use it, which is why some people are publicly pulverized and others are not.

Our culture's present-day cavalier use of the n-word speaks less about our rights to free speech and more about how we as Americans - both White and Black - have become anesthetized to the damaging and destructive use of this epithet.

Many African Americans, and not just the hip hop generation, state that reclaiming the n-word serves as an act of group agency and as a form of resistance against the dominant culture's use of it, and therefore the epithet gives only them a license to use it.

However, the notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to refer to each other using the n-word while considering it racist for others outside the race, unquestionably sets up a double standard. Also, the notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is a reductio ad absurdum argument, since language is a public enterprise.

African Americans' appropriation of the n-word as insiders neither obliterates the historical baggage with which the word is fraught nor obliterates its concomitant social relations among Blacks and between Whites and Blacks. Just because some African Americans use the term does not negate our long history of self-hatred.

The n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African Americans. However, today the meaning of the n-word is all in how one spells it. By dropping the "er" ending and replacing it with either an "a" or "ah" ending, the term morphs into one of endearment. But many slaveholders pronounced the n-word with the "a" ending, and in the 1920s many African Americans used the "a" ending as a pejorative term to denote class differences among themselves.

Language is a representation of culture. Language re-inscribes and perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender and sexual orientation we consciously and unconsciously articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world, and consequently transmit generationally.

My enslaved ancestors knew that their liberation was not only rooted in their acts of social protests, but also in their use of language, which is why they used the liberation narrative of the Exodus story in the Old Testament as their talking-book. The Exodus story was used to rebuke systemic oppression, racist themes, and negative images of themselves.

However, too many of us keep the n-word alive, because reclaiming racist words like the n-word does not eradicate its historical baggage and its existing racial relations among us.

Instead, it dislodges the word from its historical context and makes us insensitive and arrogant to the historical injustice done to a specific group of Americans. It also allows Americans to become unconscious and numb in the use and abuse of the power and currency this racial epithet still has, thwarting the daily struggle many of us Americans work hard at in trying to ameliorate race relations.

I think Gribben's is trying to do that with his edition of Huck Finn.


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Oh, no! ... (sigh!) ... not this again! ... everyone here knows what I think, so I'll just weigh in later ... if needed.

I have two thoughts to share: I guess it's because I'm a writer and artist that I find the idea of this redacted edition of Huck Finn kind of horrifying. If the book is not appropriate for kids, or if we're concerned that most teachers don't have the sensitivity required to teach it, then don't teach it to kids. I think we're way too attached to its status as an American classic for young people. The racial language dates it, and maybe it's time to retire it from American classrooms. There are plenty of other problems with the book besides the n-word, and there are many other books that touch the same areas (Uncle Tom's Cabin, for example), which could replace Huck Finn in classrooms.

And also this: "Popularized by young African Americans' use of it in hip hop music..."

It's not just hip-hop or young people that use this word. Any non-black person who has lived in a black neighborhood, shopped at the same stores, ridden the same buses, etc., knows that there are black communities where every conversation (among people of all ages and genders) is peppered with this word. (Context context context: if a friend of mine says "Hey faggot" it's obviously completely different than a stranger shouting it at me on the street.) I think it's disingenuous to say that this is a hip hope phenomenon, when clearly it has a deeper and more complex history of use among black folks.

That's been my question as well here: does Huck Finn have to be taught?

The other question has been what people who are actually in schools now think about it. Coverage of this kerfuffle has centered around what grown-ups think, but if the entire debate is about how it's dated, then maybe the kids should be talked to.

Totally. that rarely occurs to researchers

Um... I grew up in the south in the 60's with family who were there for hundreds of years. I've read Twains Huck Finn and also Uncle Remus's Tales of the South. Twains story sadly does depict the southerners use of language and the use of the 'N' word.
It's a true and accurate dipiction.
Growing up in the south during the Civil Rights Era I do remember a lot of hateful stuff. Language that Twain would never put on paper.
Is the N word contextually or factually wrong?
No.
It is in fact a hate filled cudgel.
A weapon used by the most vile and hate filled.
Removing the word from the text and sanitizes it. But, look at Disney's movie 'Song of the South' based on the stories of Uncle Remus. The stories told by Uncle Remus are really based on Stories told to a very young child stolen from Africa and who grew old in the south. You can hear his native tounge when you read the unabridged stories.
But, Song of the South sanitizes the reality of the era. An era of genocide, kidnapping and horrors too many to count, too horrific to recount.
Diluting the reality and sanitizing any records of that reality ... Can lead to a skewed perception of it.

"Nigger" and "slave" are simply not interchangeable. Not all "niggers" were slaves to begin with-- it's just coddling and whitewashing history.

It's like we were to revisit the Holocaust and re-design the event to be some fluffy carnival and scrubbed out the Nazi propaganda with bland, neutral text.

The point of the book is to show us the environment in that era so that we don't forget how it was before and what circumstances caused it, so we make sure not to fall back into that place in the future. To remove racist language tries to hide the racist atmosphere in order to coddle someone's sensitivity.

Most importantly, this book should not be assigned to kids. It's like the Scarlet letter and Shakespeare being introduced to 5th graders-- their circumstances simply are not suited for examining such advanced texts.

They would just parrot what their teachers teach them to interpret from the book, but they would really not grasp it at an emotional level, which is key to literature and its social impact.

One needs to be direct with children when teaching them about race issues-- simplicity is best. Leave indirect, subtle ways of illustrating prejudice and class/race issues to those with sufficient maturity (and hopefully experience) to start understanding the social systems currently in place and how they've evolved.

1. "Most importantly, this book should not be assigned to kids. It's like the Scarlet letter and Shakespeare being introduced to 5th graders-- their circumstances simply are not suited for examining such advanced texts." Right on.

2. Especially when it appears that people as intelligent and thoughtful as Rev. Monroe and some of the previous commenter have not, as adults, read and understood the book.

CassandraToday | January 14, 2011 3:20 AM

Thanks for this thoughtful analysis. It gives me a way to think and talk about a similar, though unrelated problem that's been bothering me -- the casual use of the the word "Nazi". By using it in trivial contexts (feminazi, grammar nazi), I fear that we trivialize the context from which the word comes. Both Nazi and nigger are losing their connotation of something horrific by this process. While the loss of one word doesn't leave us unable to talk about the horror of slavery, lynchings, or concentration camps, it does diminish our vocabulary for doing so. As we've read so much in the news lately, words matter. So does the loss of words through trivializing them.

The n-word is an epithet, always, only, and in every context? And we're anesthetized, amnesic, or self-hating if we don't agree with you? Not much of an agrument, but some pretty powerful rhetoric.

Not unexpected from a Wellesley grad .

Language is NOT a public enterprise. We can lobby lexicographers, but that's just PC bullying. And if a dictionary mentions that (this word) is used as a ratial slur, but fails to mention that it comes from the latin, niger, meaning black, shame on them!

"The n-word is an epithet, always, only, and in every context? And we're anesthetized, amnesic, or self-hating if we don't agree with you? Not much of an agrument, but some pretty powerful rhetoric."

Right on! This is basically the same argument I encounter when talking to people who think that gay men shouldn't be allowed to use the word "faggot" or "fag" with each other or that lesbians can't self-identify as or call each other a "dyke" in any context, and I've never agreed with it.

Words have the power to hurt, yes. But for most people it's only in certain contexts. As Steven said above: "Context context context: if a friend of mine says "Hey faggot" it's obviously completely different than a stranger shouting it at me on the street."

I agree that 'slave' is not a viable substitute for 'nigger' and that is does more harm then good.

I disagree about introducing 5th graders to great literature.RE: Rafe Esquith's "Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire"

I currently work at an after school program at an elementary level while studying to be an elementary school teacher. We have 4th and 5th graders who've read more novels than I have and can articulate the meanings of different characters and settings in works by Twain, Dickenson, and even Homer.

Don't short change our kids, we don't know what they are capable of until we try.


Lastly, simply making a word taboo does not change the minds of those who would so eagerly use it to hurt their fellow man.

If a bigot is prejudice in his mind and in his actions, does forcing or suggesting him to change his language change anything at all?


On a lighter note, look up Tim Minchin's song "Prejudice" on youtube for a good laugh.

But don't you think that the word will become more popular among children since it has been mentioned so many times in the last few days? The situation in the class will get even worse now since children will concentrate exclusively on this word.