1.05.2011

Censorship for the Sake of Education? NewSouth Books' New (Censored) Edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Link: Publisher Tinkers with Twain by Julie Bosman, for the New York Times

This is the kind of thing that really just upsets me as both an educated reader, and a consumer.

I am offended that Alabama publisher NewSouth Books and, according to the article, some educators feel that this condescension is necessary. This is obviously not an abridged or "children's" edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or the jacket would be more appealing. This is an edition that is meant to be taken seriously by readers and by educators alike. So why the censorship? This isn't 1884 - these aren't the original publishers turning to Samuel Clemens and saying "listen...uh...remember when we printed Tom Sawyer in '76 and we let you sneak in the words 'nigger' (5 times) and 'injun' (part of a character name, Injun Joe, used 42 times)....well...this time you only used 'injun' 7 times...but you used 'nigger' 219 times and uh...that's...well, that's a lot and um...well...we just can't print those words."

This is 2011! What do these publishers not understand about cultural relativism?! And why are educators like introduction-writer Alan Gribben avoiding the contextualization of that cultural relativism? The students that will read this edition are not immune to the world. For one thing, there's the internet. And for another thing, they have one another. And the words spewing from kids' mouths these days are ten times worse than anything that Sam Clemens could have thought up.

But the point I'm trying to make is that he wasn't trying to be offensive and he wasn't using these words for shock value, and he wasn't using them as motifs signifying the language of a culture of sexual objectification (like I've seen in some poorly written urban fiction, à la Danette Majette). These words in this context all make perfect sense, except to those who seem to fear language. And a fear of language is an insecurity that I don't think I will ever understand.

One final thing that I'd like to say, and then I'll go on fuming elsewhere: the publishers' replacement of the word 'nigger' with the word 'slave' is insufficient. If you're going to censor a book's content (and there should be a special circle of hell for those who do) then at least do your damn research. Mark Twain himself used the word "negro" but he was writing characters more base than himself, so "nigger" is straight from the vernacular and didn't mean "slave" but "black-skinned." Also, the novel takes place in the Antebellum Era (pre-Civil War), at a time when blacks (slave, free, didn't matter) used the word "nigger" as artificial self-deprecation. It was a way of allowing white supremacists to think that these people were submitting to their superiority, and it threw suspicion off of themselves - that word had a very important use to them. So replacing it with "slave" is not only insufficient, but (yeah, I'll say it) disrespectful.

These are facts that should not be denied to students by educators. What better way to illustrate history (because we know those 20-year-old history books do such a great job with their "and then Lincoln ended slavery" mantra) than this - what better way to desensitize a taboo, than with the truth?

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