Thursday, January 6, 2011

Removing "N" Word from Huckleberry Finn is More Southern Revisionism Gone Wild Not Political Correctness

Related: Linguist John McWhorter: Sanitizing Huckleberry Finn Insults Black People

I just read about the exceptional foolishness of a misguided southern publisher. At CNN, a Mark Twain biographer, Ron Powers, calls NewSouth Books' decision to strip the word "nigger" from Mark Twain's classic Huckleberry Finn, "vapid, smiley-faced effrontery ... (that) corrodes the foundations of respect for American literature." I agree with Mr. Powers and also commentary at the Washington Post, and I report sadly that I always knew the misunderstandings about political correctness would come to this.

While PC speech has some benefits, it was inevitable that mishandling its purpose would eventually spawn idiots who butcher the works of brilliant creative writers. I say mishandling because I don't think this attack on Huck Finn is political correctness as much as I think it's another example of the South's attempt to rewrite itself.

So, to my fellow African-American Boyce Watkins, who thinks it's good to cut the word from Huck Finn's adventures, I say, "You, sir, are wrong!" Parents, even black parents, would do better to teach their children about the history and times of Mark Twain's book than to coddle them by creating the illusion that no one has ever used the word "nigger." The book teaches us something about people and America even as it supplies bittersweet moments (See PPR_Scribe's "My Nigger Story.").

Yes, I have indulged the pleas of a cute child who asked us to "ban the 'N' word," but that's as far as I go; I'll weep for a moment with a little boy while I recall the first time the "N" word was used against me and then I will stand strong. Oh, if I'd had a gun back then, I would have struggled not to pull the trigger, but it was a person who used the word and had he not known that word, then he would have used another insult. His intent was to do harm.

BTW, some folks are already trying to ban the word "Negro." How far will this go? That other "N" word story surfaced this time last year. Maybe we're now on an annual "N" word controversy schedule.

People who can't abide the word "nigger" under any circumstances regardless of context, usage or intent, who would censure literature perhaps in lieu of politicians and poor role models in everyday life or who think humans are too stupid on their own to learn how and how not to use words, are themselves boneheaded. And I say this after considering how the "N" word is used and has been used and after speaking out against racism often. And no, I do not believe that in order to stop white people from using the word as an insult, black people must not use it as well. Folks who want to hurt or misguide you with words have alternatives. (See Russell Peters Mondays jokes). Plus, black people should have the right to code switch the same way other people do, and white people should be bright enough to know that they are not us.

I wouldn't dare call a white single mother from a mobile home in Slidell, La., a slip of poor white trailer trash no matter how often I heard others define her that way or how many times she might call herself the same. If I know not to do that, then white people should know not to use the "N" word.

Furthermore, I do think when people misuse the word in the name of their own insecurities or as a racial slur against people of color (See John Mayer, some black rappers, and some whites and soldiers who indulge calling Arabs "sand niggers"), they should be confronted. I expect them to know better and think they are smart enough to know they should not speak to people or of people in a certain way. I expect them to know this the same way a man knows if he wants the female bank loan officer to look favorably at his loan application, he can't roll up to her desk saying "bitch." What we all know is that if you don't use a word when you need a favor, then you probably shouldn't use it when you don't.

When it's convenient to them, white people—make that all people—know when they're leveraging racist language to impress, intimidate, or divide as can be seen in this clip of white conservatives taking another conservative to task about his racial word shenanigans. And we also know the difference between the technical definition of racism--the belief that one race is superior to another--how that belief is preserved in our institutions and the blatant racism practiced and promoted by groups like the KKK. We know the difference between the facile ignorance of people who deny they benefit from white privilege and the undiluted hatred of card-carrying, cross-burning racists. We know it all creates chaos and inflicts pain in myriad ways that surpass use of the "N" word.

Nevertheless, far more times than not there is rarely an excuse for speaking this word in mixed or even segregated professional company. And yet, there may be compelling reasons to use the "N" word in fiction or poetry and sometimes even music.

I have a huge problem with a publisher changing Mark Twain's words in the same way I would have a problem with a publisher changing the words of Zora Neale Hurston. In Jonah's Gourd Vine, a story based on her parent's courtship and marriage and that reflects accurately lifestyles of African-Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Notasulga, Ala., and Eatonville, Fla., she has lines such as "... Booker T. Washington. Nigger so smart he et (ate) at de White House. Built uh great big ole school wuth uh thousand dollars, maybe mo.'"

Not only a writer but also a trained anthropologist and ethnographer, Hurston knew how to write and speak in Standard English but indulged writing in dialect, a fad during her time when writers were sometimes obsessed with reflecting regional speaking styles accurately in dialogue. A folklorist, she also believed in showing how people speak in ways that reveal heritage, culture, and social circumstance. Hurston was a product of her time as was Twain. Consequently, their writings reflect their worlds, and if we assault their works, sanitizing them for our own vanilla sensibilities, we will lose not only the flavor of the nation's old literature but also find we have tampered with perceptions of history.

I am not saying anything I haven't said or suggested before. When I heard in 2007 that New York City wanted to symbolically ban the 'N' word, I wrote the following:
How I relate to this as a writer.

As a writer, I have other feelings about using the word as addressed in my post "Speaking Out on the 'N' word." In that post I have some examples of artists/poets using the word.

Writers use a character's language to give readers insight into a character's nature, to make characters three-dimensional. For instance, if my character were a racist, would it seem odd that he never used the word "nigger"? If the character is from an environment, even a black character, that uses the word frequently, would my character seem less authentic if he and the other characters around him never used the word?

Should the writer edit dialogue to censor his character's speech, and does such editing detract from the story? Does the story suffer or benefit if the word is eliminated? I ask myself these same questions when I create characters who would naturally curse and curse often.
And so, I would not even agree with stripping the word "nigger" from a piece of fiction written today.

In addition, I think this move of a white publisher in Alabama of all places wanting to strip the word "nigger" from Huckleberry Finn seems like too disingenuous an act to be approved on face value. It reminds me of those Texans rewriting history and social studies textbooks, or Mississippi's Gov. Haley Barbour's attempt to redefine the racist Citizens Councils of his youth, and Virginia textbooks teaching that thousands of black people fought for the Confederacy because a writer was so desperate to fulfill that state's requirement to teach about the rebels in a more favorable light that she goofed. It's all an attempt to scrub history and lift up the South again to smell like roses. The motive is to distort reality and make us forget the evil things done.

Why must we go to extremes? Why can't adult humans of all races embrace the knowledge that lets them understand context and intent? Sometimes we behave as though we are incapable of comprehending language enough to know when we've heard an insult or of manipulating language in ways that either enlighten or deceive. Instead we pursue banning words to the point of censoring creativity.

And what's next, to strip from Shakespeare insults to short people or to rewrite his Merchant of Venice and forget it ever contained elements of antisemitism? Shall we edit Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels so no words in the text disdain women, obscuring the battle of the sexes, concerns about women controlling consumerism, and the fears that males would lose the power of science during his time?

I think we should speak civilly to each other. However, I also think that if our teachers aren't skilled enough to teach Huckleberry Finn as is and explain historical context and cultural influences on a period's race relations, if teachers can't illuminate the significance and meanings of difficult texts and American students are too daft to grasp shades and styles of writing, then why do we have schools at all?


MrsGrapevine said...

Hope you're down for Old School Friday. The meme returns for 2011.

Here is the new site where you can sign-up for the themes:

The theme tomorrow is Teena Marie.

Yandie, Goddess of Pickles. said...

Apparently the next step is to ban Dire Straits for using the word Faggot in reference to David Geffen 30 years ago.