Alibi V.20 No.3 • Jan 20-26, 2011 

Culture Shock

First They Came for the N-Word

A new version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes out more than 200 instances of the n-word and replaces them with “slave.”

Without getting into why slave is also offensive, this is a bad idea.

I know. “The n-word”—as it has been sanitized—is wholly disturbing, one that reminds us of a shameful era of our history.

Let’s not forget, or in this case rewrite, history. The story occurs in antebellum Missouri. Americans owned slaves and referred to them by one of the few words that still causes chagrin when it’s uttered. It’s not a nice thing to think about, but it happened.

Changing literature smacks of Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston sits in an office all day and removes references to people who have been relegated to “unperson” status by the totalitarian state. They are dead, more than likely shot in the head, but the Inner Party also wants them erased. A document or record bearing the name of the persona non grata is cut out and thrown into the incinerator. He excises them from ever having been.

Changing the words in Huck Finn is no different.

This is a slippery slope. First it’s the word; then it’s the book; finally, it’s the writer. Start banning or censoring books, and before you know it, the fire department is torching your house.

Of course, the language in Huck requires context so people don’t assume Mark Twain was just some jerk who hated black people. School children need to know our history; they need to talk about it. But removing words disses Mark Twain, condescends to students, and ignores history and, most importantly, the people who suffered through it. And if we forget the past, we’ll just have to do it over again.

Leave it alone.

[Editor’s note: John Bear has been deemed too offensive and has been deleted.]