Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Erasing cultural history and avoiding the conversation

A new edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer comes out in February. (February!)

And I'm surprised and upset about the changes the editor has made. As the saying goes, I feel some kind of way about it.

Alan Gribben (Auburn University) edited the new versions for NewSouth Books. The 2011 versions will remove all mentions of the "n" word and replace it with "slave." Also edited: Injun Joe becomes "Indian" Joe and half-breed becomes "half-blood."

Gribben made the changes to make the books easier for teachers to use in the classroom. He says schools do not teach the books because of the offensive language.

I get it. I know that those words make people uncomfortable. I certainly don't like hearing the "n" word.

But as a mother, writer, Southerner, African American and literature geek (and all my other selves), I say this is a wrong and even damaging way to think about literature. And I'm very concerned that, if Gribben's volume gains traction, it will become the only version of Twain's novels that we read.

And it will be the wrong version, altered from the author's intended text. Altered in a way that pretends that the words Twain wrote were not actually in use during his time. Altered to make it "easier" to teach - meaning it will help teachers avoid providing deeper context to explain how stories reflect the cultural and historical moment; how writers weave in imagination and realism; and what has happened since Twain's lifetime to shape how we say, write and hear the "n" word, "injun," "half-breed" and other offensive terms.

In making the work "easier" to read, Gribben takes away some of the big lessons that we can find in reading.

And I think that "easier" really means that teachers won't have go take some uncomfortable questions from students, but also teachers, administrators and school boards can take the easy way out when parents challenge the book.

Wouldn't it be better to teach Twain's work as part of learning about American cultural history and give students a better grounding in what our country was like for people who didn't look like or live like the founding fathers?

Perhaps by seeing the words used in literature it will help everyone understand what's at stake when those words occur in contemporary popular culture.

I certainly don't want my own children reading sanitized versions of literature. They can read the books as they were written and we certainly would help them understand how the work fits into it's historical period and what has happened to change the way we talk to and about one another.

I want them educated and readied for the world, not raised with a cleaned up version of their own American cultural history.

Read more about the new editions in stories posted at NPR and Publishers Weekly.


Jevon Oakman Bolden said...

This is rather unfortunate. You can't erase the past but you can learn from it. I'd have to say that sweeping things like this under the rug could be why we are seeing so much bullying in our schools. Discussion and open facilitated dialog about hard topics like America's cultural past is what brings understanding and sensitivity. I agree with you on all the points you stated above. I have had the "n" word conversation with my white friends and colleagues and I can actually see that the memories of this word hurts them very much--to the point that they do not want to hear it or read it. It is a harsh word. But avoiding it and covering it up doesn't change what was once a disgusting norm. Neither does it change our effectively address the need for continued growth in ethnic relations. The classics should stay the classics. Let's learn from our past (I am pleading now), and move forward with better understanding. Cultural sensitivity is so important. Diversity is what should be mainstream, and if we erase and cover up what makes up that diversity our pasts merge into some parallel, politically correct, bland history.

Thandelike said...

They're editing these words out because it's "too difficult" for educators to span the bridge between Twain's context and today. What is "teaching" those books, and any book, if not exactly that?

Syncretic said...

I agree, but must point out additionally that Twain's very deliberate use of "nigger" is not *only* a depiction of a historical period. It's specifically used, over and over, to highlight the contrast between the humanity and character of Jim, and his position in society. When Pap Finn uses it (see http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/01/05/does-one-word-change-huckleberry-finn/the-words-of-pap-finns-rant ), the reader is meant to see the absurdity of Pap's feeling of superiority. And when Huck uses it (without malice) the reader is meant to reflect on the gap between what Huck has absorbed from his society and what he has learned in direct experience--a worthwhile reflection for all times.

As every writer should know, "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter" (said Twain). With "nigger," this is a mighty anti-racist book. Without, it is considerably diminished.

Bella Stander said...

Excellent post. But I'm wondering why, if it's OK for Twain to use--and for our children to discuss in school--we're all referring to the "N-word," yet using "Injun" and "half-breed" in full.

Ishmael Reed put it very well on the Wall St. Journal blog: http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/01/05/should-mark-twain-be-allowed-to-use-the-n-word

Rubien said...

I absolutley love that people are upset about this. In class, we were asked, and I was the only student that was upset about this. Movies and books are a reflections of the cultural period in time. We can't go back in history to erase what has happened, so why should we ignore it? We sertainly aren't going to go through and edit all of the words in our society that is horribly incorrect. I'm not going to say that being called a fagget, or a queer has the same neggative connotation as being called a "nigger", but I would find it offensive if I was reading a book that had faggot or queer used in it, and someone went through and changed it to be socially acceptable. I find it more affensive to try to edit out this kind of language, then to accept that it has been used, and that it was wrong. Thank you for pointing out this horrible injustice that has happenned to one of my favorite books, not to mention one of the most commonly read books in our society since it came out.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this euphemized huck finn is ridiculous. Great post.

Christi said...

I think the "avoiding the conversation" part of the title of this post is key.

Several parenting blogs I read have mentioned NurtureShock by Bronson and Merryman and the chapter that deals with race and how white parents, by and large, avoid having "the conversation" with their children, with detrimental results to society.

(The idea is that without knowing about institutional racism, kids make up their own, usually racist, reasons for the inequalities they see. Kids aren't blind, and they generally want the world to make sense.)

So if white parents aren't discussing race at home and teachers are becoming less able or willing to discuss the issue at school, we may be in effect creating or at least maintaining a more racist society. That's completely unacceptable.

I'm using the term "white parents" here because I think parents of color generally do have these discussions with their kids (out of necessity), but I could be wrong about that.

I think all parents need to have this conversation. Though I admit that I don't know that I do a great job with it with my own kids when we talk about it.

Parenting.com has tips for the conversation here: http://www.parenting.com/article/5-tips-for-talking-about-racism-with-kids