Thursday, January 6, 2011

On Mark Twain, Harper Lee and the n-word

You've probably heard by now about the furor over a publisher who decided to replace the word "nigger" with the word "slave" in a new edition of "Adventures of of Huckleberry Finn." You also probably know that it's not the first time that six-letter word has ignited debate about literary classics.

In 2009, I wrote about a similar debate in Charlotte. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg library had recruited local celebrities to read chapters of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" for a free podcast as part of the library's Big Read. Three participants were uncomfortable reading chapters containing the word. "For me, the word could have nothing but a negative connotation," WCNC (Channel 36) news anchor Sonja Gantt told me then. "I really felt sick. I just couldn't do it."

I found the debate fascinating, and I could see both sides, though I'd argue the word shouldn't be changed or removed. Frazer Dobson, co-owner of Park Road Books, also makes an eloquent argument for keeping the offensive word in Mark Twain's works. Thanks, Frazer, for sharing your comments:

"First of all, I want to make it clear that I mean no disrespect to Randall Williams and Suzanne La Rosa of New South (publishers), whom I know personally, nor Professor Gribben of AUM, whom I have never met. I should also note that 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' is public domain and that anyone is free to publish and alter the text as they like. I can understand that Huck’s prolific use of the N-word makes people uncomfortable, which has led to it becoming the 4th most banned book in schools.

But....well, my main point: the use of the N word is SUPPOSED to make the reader uncomfortable. It’s pretty well-known and obvious that Mark Twain was appalled by racism and slavery, and I suspect he knew exactly the implications of his word choice. Huck is an ignorant character, and his voice is the voice of his environment. So are Bob Ewell from 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and Jason Compson in 'The Sound and the Fury' and dozens if not hundreds of other characters from across the canon of Southern literature.

Slavery and racism are the original sins of the United States and especially the South. I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1980s, and though you’d think we’d have learned better by then, I heard white people using the N word nearly every single day. We cannot ignore the existence of the word any more than we can ignore the existence of racism, and I worry that by, you will pardon the pun, whitewashing history, we are doing ourselves a great disservice. And I believe this is the unintended consequence of this well-intentioned attempt to make Twain’s masterpiece more palatable to students. Would any of us do this to 'To Kill a Mockingbird'? 'Invisible Man'? The works of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor? Our greatest authors did not use the N-word lightly, and it was (and, regrettably, still is) part of our lives growing up Southerners. And a big part of growing up is being made uncomfortable. That’s how you learn right from wrong.
I don’t like the word. Never have. Many of my white classmates tossed it around with no real clue to its meaning, but if my mom had ever heard me say it, well, the results wouldn’t have been pretty. When I read the word in a novel, it still makes me flinch. I knew what it meant early on in life, and I knew that people that used it frequently were generally not people I wanted to be around. But I fear that simply pretending the word doesn’t exist does us no favors as readers or thinkers, that it attempts to hide the ugliness of an ugly part of our world that still exists, to make us comfortable. And comfort is not what I look for in a book. I think Kafka said it best (and thanks to Robert Segedy for turning me on to this quote some years ago): 'A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us.'


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a well written and sensible commentary on this.

Hopefully, the comments section here won't be filled with all the over-the-top rantings and ravings that the original article generated.

Megan S said...

Thank you :) You put all my thought into words!! I am currently reading To Kill A Mockingbird in school right now and my teacher was talking about how it SHOULD make you uncomfortable and that is all part of the culture and understanding the time period when it was acceptable to call people the N-word. I hear people in the halls using this word so lightly(both black and white). I wonder if they realize all the baggage that comes with the word. Thankfully, as a general, we have over come the racist behavior. While it is only shortly passed up, I am glad as a society we can move forward, equally.
Thanks again :)