I recently read that the publisher of Mark Twain’s books Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer will release a new combined edition of the books that will replace the word “nigger” with the word “slave” in an effort not to offend readers. The new versions without the “N” word are scheduled to be published in February 2010.
Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who is working with the publisher, said the racially offensive slur appears 219 times in the book. He said the word puts the books in danger of joining the list of literary classics that Twain once humorously defined as those “which people praise and don’t read”.
It’s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvellous reading experience and a lot of readers.”
However, it is not just one word that the publisher is changing. In addition to replacing the racial slur, Gribben changes the villain in Tom Sawyer from “Injun Joe” to “Indian Joe” and “half-breed” becomes “half-blood”.
I am sorry, but what the publisher is doing—that, I find offensive.
In my humble opinion, you cannot replace an era, or hide it or say it did not exist!
The reality is, at the time the books were published, a great majority of white people thought that using the word “nigger” to refer to a black person was acceptable. Using that word in books in that context is extremely relevant, and a sign of the times.
When you edit that word in a book, you change the entire history of the story and the author’s intent. What does that say about the banning or censorship of books? The desire to censor classic novels to exclude words or phrases that somebody finds offensive is not only an assault on literary art, but a statement that you aren’t mature enough to handle reading them.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, originally published in the US in 1885, is the fourth most banned book in schools, according to Banned in the U.S.A. by Herbert N. Foerstal, a retired college librarian who has written several books on constitutional freedom of speech issues.
Classic works of literature such as Huckleberry Finn and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men were among the top 10 most frequently challenged books from 1990 to 2000, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Of the 448 recorded challenges in 2001, the most often challenged were those in the Harry Potter series, for its focus on wizardry and magic and “satanic influence”.
The aim of book banning (in most US case law) is to prevent authors from corrupting the minds of youth, to protect youths and to control classroom curriculum. These legal challenges come mostly from public school libraries. However, in 1982, the landmark case of Board of Education, Island Trees School District v. Pico found that school officials cannot remove library material because they disagree with the ideas behind it. Protecting the rights of students to express as well as receive information, the US Supreme Court ruled that a book or periodical must be “pervasively vulgar” to constitute adequate ground for banning. The school board had removed Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut Jr.), The Naked Ape (Desmond Morris) and Soul on Ice (Eldridge Cleaver) from the school library for being “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.”
Nevertheless in a country that says it strongly believes in free speech (the First Amendment rights of the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law infringing on the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press…), the censoring of classroom curricula, the banning of books in schools and libraries and the desecration of classic works such as Twain’s continues to this day.
Most can agree that “nigger” is an ugly word. That said, it’s still a part of the US and other nations’ history, and to pretend otherwise is thoughtless and unfair to those who had to live through it and their descendants. To hide the historical truth (ugly as it may be), by changing this perspective fails to show today’s and future generations how far we have come as a society—how much progress we’ve made, and how much still has to be made.