Thursday, January 6, 2011

On Censorship and Huckleberry Finn

Before we get into this, I want to warn you that I will use the word "nigger". I doubt I'll use it 219 times, but I'm not going to resort to "the N-word" as if it were some sort of linguistic voldemort that will come into my room and cast the cruciatus curse on my muggleness.

It's a word, a tool, a symbol. In and of itself it has no power or importance. What determines the effect and impact of the word is how it's used. As George Carlin said "There is absolutely nothing wrong with the word “nigger” in and of itself. It’s the racist asshole who’s using it that you ought to be concerned about."

That quote sums up my position on this Huckleberry Finn censorship beautifully. I think we can all agree that "nigger" is a foul, ugly word, but what determines the danger it presents is the context in which it's used.

I've even used the word myself in poetry.

So let's talk about context.
Huckleberry Finn deals, largely, with the issue of slavery. At that time, in America, Africans were bought and sold as livestock, beaten, raped with impunity, and generally treated as less than human by the rest of the population.

A black person in America was referred to, 99.9% of the time as "nigger" just as a female canine is referred to as a "bitch".

So is it surprising that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), a social progressive by all accounts, when writing about slavery would use the word "nigger" 219 times in a single book?

Not at all. Because that is how people talked. The language reflects the attitude of the characters, and what we would call the disgusting treatment of an entire race of people.

There's a movie made in 2006 called "Amazing Grace" that follows the efforts in parliament of British abolitionist William Wilberforce to end slavery.

In an early scene, William is playing cards with another MP who runs out of money. To cover his bet, the other lord tells his manservant to "fetch my nigger" to use as collateral.

So let's give this scene the same treatment. Compare the emotional impact of "fetch my nigger" against "fetch my slave".

Slave, while odious, doesn't come close to capturing the brutality and disregard for basic human dignity that this character is expressing.

At the most basic level, censoring the work of one of America's most beloved and skilled wordsmiths is artistic vandalism. Words are chosen carefully, and for specific impact. You may as well knit a sweater for the Venus DeMilo, to cover up those naughty nipples. Or put a black CENSORED bar across the breasts of Manet's "Olympia".

More importantly, changing a word like "nigger" in the context of the historical south is egregious historical revisionism. We may as well change Elie Wiesel's "Night" to have the nazis putting delicious chocolate chip cookies in the ovens at Auschwitz.

It subverts the artistic vision of a great American author, denies our cultural history, and is a slap in the face to the heritage of those slaves and freed blacks who had to suffer through this shameful period in America.

So what is the point of this censorship? To protect the tender sensibilities of modern, enlightened people? To protect the feelings of black people, who still face racism in America, from being hurt by reading the word?

The advocator of this censorship, Dr Alan Gribben of Auburn University is a white man, from Alabama, of all places. This is the place where, in 1972, George Bush worked on a senate campaign that accused the opponent of being "soft on race".

I'm not accussing Dr. Gribben of racism in his efforts. I'm sure that his claim that his motivation to get the classic Twain work in front of more readers is valid, but it is misguided. Living in a place where racism is such a major concern should make such a person of learning more sensitive to revisionism that attempts to sweep the historical treatment of blacks under the rug. This censorship could justifiably be seen as an attempt to hide the shame of our white ancestors.

What's next, claiming that the Tuskegee experiment involved the injection of flu vaccine? Alabama has a shameful history with regard to race relations.

I understand the desire for greater exposure. Growing up, "Huckleberry Finn" was on a list of "banned books" along with "Catcher In The Rye" and "Of Mice And Men", that didn't stop me from reading them.

If a potential reader isn't mature enough to handle the word "nigger" used in a historical context, they aren't mature enough to understand what "Huckleberry Finn" is really about.

So readers, when you pick up a copy of the uncensored book, read that word "nigger" and take it for what it is.

White Americans, be ashamed for the mistakes of our forebears that allowed such dehumanization to occur, and be proud that we've come as far as we have towards the acceptance and tolerance of individuals and minority groups. We're not all the way there, but we're much further than we used to be.

Black Americans, identify with the suffering of your ancestors, and appreciate the strides that have been made for equality in this nation. You're not done yet, either, but progress has been made.

Above all else, protect the integrity of our history and literary heritage, for those that forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.

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