Today is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, because as much as we may not be aware or want to think of it, slavery still exists in the world today. Recently it was announced a book publisher was going to remove the n-word from copies of Mark Twain’s book, “Huckleberry Finn.” This has of course sparked controversy in the publishing world, across the Internet and beyond. For years “Huckleberry Finn” has been decried as a racist book and then summarily banned in many school districts across the United States. Unfortunately because of this, many of those who call the book racist, may not have actually read it and are simply repeating what they’ve heard about its contents.
In my opinion, the book is not racist. It does use what we consider today to be racist language, but like it or not, that is how people spoke back then. We cannot rewrite history to suit our current ideas. At least we should not. America has a racist past and in many ways continues many of those same ideologies today. Allowing schoolchildren to read and discuss “Huckleberry Finn” is one way to teach them about that past and those ideologies, so that they can be informed and intelligent adults. Learning about slavery and the terms used for slaves will not harm them. If you want to discuss harm, then consider the way the n-word is blasted across the airwaves in hip-hop and rap music today. I find it ironic and a bit hypocritical that some of those calling “Huckleberry Finn” racist because of the use of the n-word will be just as passionate about defending the use of it in popular music today.
If we are truly want to be well informed as a people and a race, then such words need only be used in an educational setting. By the way, in case you were wondering, I am of African American and Native American descent. I have been called the n-word in various ways, because sadly, it is a term hurled not only at African Americans but also at people of many ethnicities across the globe.
I’m sure you notice that even though I am defending leaving “Huckleberry Finn” as Mark Twain originally wrote it, I am not using the term that has caused so much controversy. That is for personal reasons, but I hope it also highlights how strongly I feel about this issue. I hate the n-word, but I understand its place in history and the importance of informing ourselves and our children about racism and civil injustice.
Another irony that many seem to either not be aware, of or not know, is that Mark Twain was an abolitionist and supported the emancipation of slaves. This is what he said about the Emancipation Proclamation: “Lincoln’s Proclamation “not only set black slaves free, but set the white man free also.” He wrote the book during a time when the South was still struggling through the aftereffects of the Civil War. It was a time of unrest and fear. Throughout the course of the book Huckleberry Finn, through his friend Jim, a runaway slave, learns that compassion and kindness do not only exist in the white race. Though other characters in the book often degrade Jim, he always maintains his dignity.
Many consider Jim’s dialect throughout the book to be Twain’s way of making him appear unintelligent, (for example he says, “Shet de do” for “Shut the door) when in truth, Twain used actual slave dialects to bring authenticity to this character. Of course, this isn’t the reason for the current uproar. Though Twain tried to provide a sympathetic character in Jim to highlight the plight of escaped slaves, many feel that he was unsuccessful in depicting Jim beyond the stereotypes of black people that many white people espoused.
Certainly if Twain were alive today and was writing the same book, it would most likely not contain some of those same elements. Nevertheless, we can’t bring him back and we shouldn’t try to rewrite history and pretend that simply because something is offensive and objectionable, that it doesn’t exist. Humankind has progressed in some respects from the time when Twain originally wrote this book, yet even so, slavery still exists today; meaning we have not come as far as we think.
As a writer I find it disturbing that anyone feels they have the right to rewrite anyone else’s words. Censorship will teach children nothing about their past or the differences they can make in the future. I hope that those who haven’t read “Huckleberry Finn” will do so, so that they can see for themselves that this book and the intent in which was it written, are not racist, but just the opposite.
Education is a powerful tool. By censoring “Huckleberry Finn” we remove the chance to achieve any positive results from discussing its contents. We might as well collectively turn ourselves into ostriches and put our heads in the sand in the hopes of ignoring our collective history.