Friday, January 14, 2011

Censorship, Maturity, and the N-Word

As you may have heard, an Alabama publisher will soon be a releasing an edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the n-word (which, just so everyone’s on the same page, is “nigger”) with the more reader-friendly “slave.” Amidst cries of censoring what is arguably the most important work of American literature, editor Alan Gribben maintains that he changed the word to appeal both to a more general reader and to schools who wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching the book in the 21st century. I feel his intentions are honorable, certainly, as anyone who tries to make literature more accessible to the public usually gets a thumbs up from me. However, in this case the politically-correct edition is merely a way of avoiding the problem by limiting the scope of Twain’s vision.

I’m no expert on Twain, and I’m slightly ashamed of how few of his works I’ve read (especially when this blog has least one regular and one occasional reader that could comment on Twain’s character far more completely than I could), but I do know about using words in context. When 1930s editions of the Hardy Boys series use outdated stereotypes of Asians, African-Americans, or Jewish people as part of their narrative structure, those stereotypes are like a time capsule showing how the author embraced those stereotypes during that time period. In Goldfinger, when Ian Fleming has Bond go off on a tangent about how the abundance of “pansies” in modern society is the result of increased equality between the sexes, it does a lot to show Fleming’s individual opinions of homosexuality and women’s rights. And, if some blogger refers to an African-American as a “nigger” in a derogatory fashion, it means that blogger is just being racist.

However, racist language can also be used consciously in fiction and nonfiction to help readers understand the attitudes of both society and individuals. Skilled writers can put racial slurs into the mouths of their characters without having those words embody their own ideals, using the language as part of a vivid world in which racism is an inherent part. In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, for example, he is not shy about having his racist white characters use racist language because he wants the reader to see them as racist. Simple, yes? Were he to hold back for fear of offending people, readers would not have a complete sense of how the controlling white minority in South America treated Mandela and the other blacks.

Shelly Fisher Fishkin summarizes this point far more coherently than I in a New York times article about the removal of the n-word from Huck Finn:

To understand how racism works in America, it is necessary to understand how this word has been used to inflict pain on black people, challenge their humanity, and undercut their achievements…to criticize racism effectively you have to make your reader hear how racists sound in all their offensive ugliness.

In literature, you simply can’t portray racist attitudes effectively without using racist language. Of course you could capture racism through another medium like sculpture or interpretive dance, but in writing the words have to carry the feeling. To shy away from that language is to create a weaker picture of racism on the printed page.

To use one of my favorite literary characters as a final example, Jason Compson, the paranoid, self-righteous, misogynistic, racist narrator from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, not only refers to all of the novels black characters as “niggers,” he treats women like trash. The latter opinion is summarized perfectly in his opening line of Part III: “Once a bitch, always a bitch, what I say.” Jason goes on to say and do terrible things to women, and as part of his overall character, of course he would use the term “bitch” to refer to the opposite sex. To remove this line because someone was offended by the word “bitch” is to destroy an integral part of Jason Compson, just like cutting out “nigger” tones down the realistic intensity of Twain’s racist characters.

Instead of worrying about offending students or the general public, responsible teachers and parents should show how these words are used in context, and responsible readers should make every attempt to understand the difference between Twain’s language and that of the Hardy Boys. Learning about how to control language is part of becoming a better reader and writer, and understanding which attitudes are worth considering and which aren’t is an important part of growing up.

Fortunately there’s still some hope. In order to preserve the author’s original tone, the Japanese translator of The Sound and the Fury chose outdated, racist Japanese to match the English that Faulkner so carefully chose. At least some editors are still aware of the power of language.

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