Recently, there’s been a real brouhaha in book-reading circles over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — specifically, the use of the n-word in the original edition and a new edition that promises to stamp out all instances of that word. The new edition will remove the n-word and the word “injun” by using the c-word: censorship.
The whole flap was started by Charles Barron, a New York City councilman and former Black Panther member. He was upset that a school principal blocked the distribution of a book of sexually explicit poems authored by Barron’s goddaughter. His argument was that if his goddaughter’s book wasn’t allowed in school, then neither should Huckleberry Finn due to its use of the n-word. There’s no indication whether or not Mr. Barron was similarly offended by the use of “injun” in the book in reference to Native Americans.
This makes me wonder if he would have raised an objection if the poetry book had been allowed in school. After all, Huck has been around longer than Mr. Barron, but this is the first time he’s felt compelled to campaign against the book’s inclusion in schools. I find it interesting that sometimes people develop a healthy dose of moral outrage only when it suits an ulterior motive.
Should We Edit the Classics to Take Out the Icky Parts?
Getting back to Huck, I understand that people may be sensitive to the n-word, students may be uncomfortable reading it, and teachers may be reluctant to dive into a discussion about the author’s use of what most people today consider a highly offensive word. But does that mean we should edit it out? Likewise for “injun,” which, incidentally, has received very little attention in this debate.
It sounds like editing out the offending words would be the easiest thing to do — no need to muck around with discussions or explanations of how and why that word was used. In fact, we could open the door to ridding ourselves of other offensive words and topics in literature. Anything from Lolita to Catcher in the Rye to To Kill a Mockingbird would be fair game. Sometimes, it’s just easier not to deal with things.
Or, Should We Just Deal With It?
Cutting out the icky is not what good literature is about. Compelling works of literature are about confronting and examining the human condition, including the ugly parts. Good literature doesn’t usually stay on the sidelines — most often, it jumps right into the fray. Good literature doesn’t usually indulge our desire for feel-good messages — it requires us to think. Good literature doesn’t usually take the easy path — it veers off into the dark and sometimes dangerous wood of humanity.
Sometimes, dealing with things and discussing them gives us a richer appreciation for our culture, our history, and the human condition. Dealing with the ugly parts is often the best way to keep those ugly parts from re-asserting themselves in our lives. Sometimes, like with the n-word, the thing we can most appreciate is that, in general, our society no longer condones or tolerates this particular brand of ugliness. Editing out the ugly parts is like saying they didn’t exist. And then we lose the opportunity to discuss why they shouldn’t exist.
According to George Santayana, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So, what’s worse? The n-word or the c-word? I’ll let you decide.