While awaiting the arrival of a dear friend to happy hour last night, my mother called. She said, “Your father and I are having strokes,” to which I replied, “Come again?” She continued by explaining what they’d just witnessed on the news. (Before I continue, I need you to understand, I have not watched the news or read a newspaper all week. It is part of my decompression from the holidays treatment, and I quite enjoyed it … until this phone call.)
Anyway, she explained to me that NewSouth’s upcoming one-volume edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer replaced the word “nigger” with “slave” and “injun” with “Indian.” I literally thought I was going to be sick, at which point I ordered a massive glass of Pinot Noir. Now, I’m not racist. I don’t wallow in the n-word (like so many rappers who aren’t being censored … but I won’t go there). I thought I was going to be sick because I am violently opposed to literary censorship.
I wrote about this last year, when a couple back-woods Wisconsin uber-conservatives suggested we burn books containing homosexual themes. You can read about that horrendous attack on American HERE. Now, we’re dealing with censorship of American classics, and you better believe this would never happen if Mark Twain was alive.
Mark Twain was a lot of things—a writer, a comic, and a loud-mouth—but he was certainly not a racist. In a recent essay, Frazer Dobson, of Como Sales, says it best when he explains Twain’s usage of “bad” words: “Huck’s prolific use of the N-word makes people uncomfortable, which has led to it becoming the fourth most banned book in schools. … My main point: the use of the N word is SUPPOSED to make the reader uncomfortable. It’s well-known and obvious that Mark Twain was appalled by racism and slavery, and I suspect he knew exactly the implications of his word choice. Huck is an ignorant character, and his voice is the voice of his environment.”
This is what I see as the main problem with removing the n-word from Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Not only does the open use of the n-word create the atmosphere of the stories, but it was intentionally used to portray the awfulness of slavery. Because slavery was awful. The ignorance of America was awful. (To quote Twitter: “It’s not Huckleberry Finn that’s offensive; it’s American history that is offensive and that is portrayed in the book.”) If we do not learn about history, history is bound to repeat itself. If we shelter the kids of America, they’re bound to grow up to be ignorant adults. And we have enough ignorance in this country without the help of censorship.
I understand that publisher and Twain scholar Alan Gribben claimed the word had prompted schools to stop teaching the works over concerns about racism, but what about To Kill a Mockingbird or The Invisible Man? They don’t use the n-word as much, but they certainly focus on racism. And they’re important pieces of American literature that need to be read. What’s next? We delete the pre-Civil War era from history books, because our forefathers owned slaves? We delete World War II, because the Nazis didn’t like Jews? Let’s forget about the Rwanda genocide, because it’s just too traumatic for American students. We are too damn sensitive, and everything suffers when we’re too sensitive—the arts, the education system, and even history. History is important, folks—whether it be in a history book or in a novel. After all, what is a novel but a time capsule, encompassing the people, places, and spirit of a specific era? More importantly, what is a novel, if not a way to change the world?
I suppose this wouldn’t upset me if I didn’t love books in all their raw, nasty truth. It wouldn’t upset me if I wasn’t a writer, too, imagining that someday, they’ll take the f-word out of one of my novels and f@$% the whole thing up. It wouldn’t upset me if books didn’t change my life—often. But I do, I am, and they do.
So to the censors: stay away from my favorite books. Someday, stay away from my books. You’re not helping. You’re sheltering kids who are already sheltered. You’re robbing them of their creative freedoms and their free will to read the classics. At the doctor’s office a couple weeks ago, I overheard a teenager say, “Why do I have to learn about our nation’s history? It’s just a bunch of dead guys.” This sentiment is what censorship creates. It creates disinterest, which leads to ignorance, which leads to more wars, more death, and less free thought. It leads to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” So in honor of those who would have the n-word removed from American literature, I shall now add an extra f-bomb to my own novel, just to brighten your day.