Why the N-word matters.

With apologies to anyone who has ever been verbally assaulted by the use of the term, the word “nigger” matters.
A new edition of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is being released by NewSouth books with the text censored to remove the word “nigger” and replace it with “slave.” This galling decision has been done, claims Twain expert Alan Gribben, because, “Race matters in these books… It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”
I think Mr. Gribben has confused the importance of history and literature with contemporary mores and marketing.
Being a slave is a matter of current conditions. Being called a nigger is a matter of dehumanizing worldview. One could escape slavery. One could not escape the viral worldview that allowed it. To equate “slave” with “nigger” is to confuse a condition with a method. People were not called niggers because they were slaves. People were called slaves because they were controlled. People were called nigger because, in that worldview, they had no place, never did, and never should.
The use of “slavery” over “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn creates another problem. It equates slavery with blacks, which is not the full picture. There were (and sadly are) other slaves who were or are not black. The word nigger was a tool for slavery, but not the only tool.
Finally, the motive for this switch is, ultimately, cowardice. The motive is to avoid tough questions from children who might ask why it was okay for Mark Twain to write “nigger,” but it’s not okay for them to yell it at the park. It avoids difficult conversations with parents who object to their children reading a difficult word because they themselves don’t understand the opportunity to teach means facing horrible truths about our own past. It avoids the need to look boldly and bluntly at our own personal histories — ones not too far removed, a small number of decades you can count on one hand — back to an era where seeing a black American meant seeing someone who couldn’t vote, or couldn’t ride that bus, or couldn’t get a drink from a certain water fountain. It avoids confronting the truth of our present, where people still use the word in the most horrible of ways: as a means to attack not the actions or views of another, but as a means to attack that persons very right to exist, to stand, to speak.
That’s why the word “nigger” matters.

33 thoughts on “Why the N-word matters.

  1. Excellent points, Sean. I agree completely. I teach religion classes at my church and we frequently debate bible stories, faulting them for their lack of historical accuracy. Many books of the bible were rewritten and even omitted in attempts by early church leaders to ensure ‘the right message’ was preserved.
    This is no different. Rewriting books is an attempt to change history. What happens if that plan actually succeeds? *shudders*

  2. Well said, Sean.
    You’re right a lot of the angst about this word is cowardice on the part of many. Nobody wants the hard conversations that the word should evoke. Sanitizing any book, let alone a classic, removes the intent of the author to provoke thought and social change.
    The same cowardice basically censored John Lennon’s Woman is the Nigger of the World from the airwaves in the 70s. In fact, John spoke about the word and why it was appropriate and even meaningful in a larger context in America then (and probably now). Take a look at the discourse (and a performance of the song) here:

  3. Thank you. Erasing is the first step in forgetting, and forgetting is the necessary step toward repeating a horror that must never happen again. Never again!

  4. Well said Sean.
    Kind of reminds me of the Cherokee nation refusing to allow blacks to claim their heritage a few years ago. By saying they couldn’t possibly have any Cherokee blood in their lineage, they hoped to erase the matter of having once been slave owners themselves.
    Changing a word won’t erase the history. We wouldn’t remove a word/symbol from an Egyptian tomb just because it offends our sensibilities would we? To me removing the word nigger implies we have the right to change history. History can’t be unmade. History exist to teach us lessons, we would otherwise soon forget.
    Your absolutely right, parents would miss teaching a valuable life lesson.(Hugs)Indigo

  5. Sean, thank you for writing what it seems few “literary scholars” have the balls to.
    I’m from a part of the country where that speech is still prevalent, and I hate it. But when I read Huck Finn, I kept in mind that this was the culture then, but it’s not MY culture now. Being politically correct to the point of deleting an important, albeit disgusting, part of history is ridiculous. Like Karen said, it frees us to make the same mistakes.

  6. We read historical and contemporary literature to understand what it was like during that time period in history.
    When we remove words that had common usage during the time period (in a misguided attempt to be PC and avoid offending readers), we lose the understanding of the time.
    Leave it alone. In Twain’s time, it was acceptable to refer to African-Americans “niggers”. Nowadays, it isn’t (usually), and we know that. Let the reader be intelligent enough to figure this out on his or her own.

  7. I actually heard the scholar on Studio 360 – and his reasons are very nuanced and thought out. However mistaken his decision, he cannot be thought a coward in my opinion.
    How and when we explain really ugly and hateful things to young people is something to be thought out by all of us.

  8. Let us not be cowards; let us confront our own history. Let us never dare to change the words of any author; let us rise to challenge of teaching, learning, understanding. Let us stand for the right to do these things. Thank you, Sean, for doing so.

  9. really this. Have any of the rest of you heard this guy? Would you rather have your kids read Huck with the word slave (which will bring up plenty of uncomfortable questions, I promise!) or not read it at all b/c school districts don’t want to deal?

  10. Well stated. It’s understandable that it can be uncomfortable dealing with the word when teaching schoolchildren, but they’re not served by the cleansing of our history. Twain’s work is an indictment of racism and the modern sensitivity to the word only serves to make his indictment even more powerful.
    We need to be able to honestly face our past. The cleansing of the text is like reading the constitution and leaving out the three fifths compromise, or Haley Barbour claiming that racism in his hometown when he was growing up “wasn’t that bad.”

  11. Sean,
    Why the N-word Matters was direct, elegant, and right on the money. I can’t imagine it being said better. Consider me a new reader. I’m very glad Roger Ebert posted your link on Twitter.
    Thank you for saying what needs to be said. And said more often.

  12. I’ve been reading about this all day. Perhaps it is just my skewed media set, but so far the consensus is that the removal of “the ‘n’ word” is bogus, and I agree. However, I really appreciate you explaining to the world why substituting the word “slave” for “nigger” is doing both words a disservice, not to mention the harm it causes kids who end up lacking that knowledge and perspective.
    You’re right, it is an act of moral cowardice. And one that is increasingly rampant. We wish to whitewash our history, and make Twain out to be a bad guy because he used the word. But look at HOW he used it. He used it to point out just how gross that mind-set really was, and is.
    We need that reminder now, just as much as we did then.
    Thanks again for a well thought out post.

  13. I think what really matters is when it is used out of context, without any real understanding as to where the term came from.
    For instance, if you saw a colored person, and called them a N-word for no reason, it makes you look like a stupid rich dough-boy with no respect at all.
    If perhaps, and I have never done this, and probably never will. If I working a night shift with a colored person and they had just been reamed out unjustly by management and they did not stand up for themselves, I might be able to say, “why do you got to be a N-word”.
    Changing a historical piece of work could essentially just erase everything that black history fought for. Jmo…
    So yes, I agree with the much more sophisticated view as to why the term matters.

  14. I commend you on your understanding of the language and the time you took to enlighten anyone who came across this. I also appreciate the youtube link to John Lennons “Women are the nigger of the world” because the discussion before their performance aligns perfectly with your point.

  15. While you can’t read too much into them, a few sites like CNN have been running reader polls on the question, and I haven’t seen results for “leave the book as-is” score less than 91 percent.
    That’s about as unanimous as you’re gonna get. The overwhelming reaction to expurgating Huck Finn is negative.
    This blog entry is definitely on the mark.
    Also, respect for the author’s work should protect it from this kind of censoring. Literature isn’t entertainment – it’s art. And art is often dangerous, thought-provoking, and difficult.
    The dumbing down of Huck Finn reduces its impact as social commentary (which is what Clemens was going for with it) and turns it into an adventure novel for young adults.
    If the n-word is such a problem, then just ban the book from general classrooms and reserve it for AP classes, accelerated learning programs, elective reading, etc.
    Yet, in my experience, young readers love being challenged and they appreciate tough material. They can feel it making them grow.

  16. I teach Huck Finn in my high school American Lit class. One of the themes that I explore with the kids is the concept of Huck as a white slave and how Twain shows the reader that it in addition to Jim’s status as a slave, his race has much to do with his status in society at large. I think that Twain draws a parallel between Jim as black slave and Huck as a sort of white slave. Consider (I’m plagiarizing myself here, so please forgive me):
    I wonder if we can see Huck as a sort of white slave. As a homeless, outcast, orphan-son-of-the-town-drunk, his status isn’t much higher than Jim’s. (In Tom Sawyer he actually confesses to sitting down and eating with the slaves but implores Tom not to tell). Granted, he is adopted, but I still think that he’s thought of as a sort of sub-class. Several things make Huck seem like a white slave:
    A. Pap’s claim that Huck should live with him when he goes to the courts centers on property rights. Huck is Pap’s property and therefore should reside (and his money too!) with Pap.
    B. Mrs. Loftus thinks that Huck is a runaway apprentice. If memory serves, an apprenticeship in these times, while not perfectly analogous, was a sort of slavery, or at least an indentured servitude. I love how Mrs Loftus is willing to help the white slave (Huck), but not the black slave.
    C. This is a weaker point, but At spots in the novel, Jim orders Huck around somewhat like a slave. Something to the effect of “Jim told me to use my saw to cut the fish open.” Minor, but interesting.
    D. On the Phelps farm, Tom certainly orders Huck around as though he’s a servant. In the butter episode Huck says that they can do without the butter, but Tom essentially orders him to get it and Huck complies like a good servant. Add to this the fact that Huck’s role in the Wilkes sister episode is servant to the King and Duke, not to mention all the other things that Tom orders Huck to do on the Phelps farm (Huck helps Jim with the grindstone while Tom “superintends”), and Huck seems to play the role of slave/servant quite a bit in this novel. The thing that differentiates him as “servant” compared to Jim as “slave” is race.
    Given this, I like the idea that “People were not called niggers because they were slaves. People were called slaves because they were controlled. People were called nigger because, in that worldview, they had no place, never did, and never should.” In a way, Jim and Huck both behave like slaves at points in the novel, but only Jim is the nigger and that has everything to do with race and less to do with slavery.

  17. I agree with you Sean. This is a very thoughtful commentary on the issue at hand. To me the idea that “slave” could be substituted “nigger” in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” suggests that the editor or publisher doesn’t understand the text.
    However, I also have to take issue with the great number of people who have referred to this as “censorship” or something like it. This rewrite, however ridiculous and disappointing, is not censorship. In fact, the freedom to rewrite (or otherwise use) public domain works is a fundamental intellectual freedom. “Huck Finn” is not sacrosanct. There are literally thousands of translations, alterations and other rewrites of Mark Twain’s work, and that’s *fantastic*, even if this specific incident is stupid.
    This bowdlerization is not going to sell. It’s going to disappear into the dustbin of history. Nobody (least of all the government) is suggesting that the original work be banned or censored. In fact, the original is more available now than it’s ever been, and that’s because we are free to republish, copy and alter it (See “Bowdlerdash: Why the Huck Finn rewrite doesn’t matter” http://thebinderblog.com/2011/01/07/mark-twain/). Public librarians, public school teachers and college professors were among the first to object to this new version of the story, and it will rarely enter a real classroom, except as an example or exhibit.

  18. Violent speech is not part of my everyday life and when I encounter the n-word in a book, it takes my breath away. I think that is a good thing. The N-word is a demeaning word and should not be used lightly. I believe changing it in a book as significant as Huck Finn, lessens the importance of the book itself. Thank you for your blog post.

  19. Sean – your observations are dead on and articulately voiced. It’s a funny coincidence that I was just discussing this with my mom and now your blog has been forwarded to me. And now I’m forwarding the link to my mom! Happy New Year!
    P.S. I’m no relation to Patty Blount (your first commenter), but what another coincidence, huh? 🙂

  20. Context is key. In the context of the book, that word is key. In the context of the rewrite, the fact that this book is banned in so many schools is key. Like another commenter here I heard the rewriter interviewed, although on a different show. He seemed frustrated that so many kids are not being taught this important, excellent book simply because of one word.
    I’m not in favor of the rewrite, but what I see missing in the conversation over it is the essential fact that kids are completely missing out on this book due to bans. Wouldn’t it be better to direct all this outrage there?
    Here’s Time’s list of the Top 10 Censored Books: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/completelist/0,29569,1842832,00.html

  21. I was all up in this same high toned theoretical defense ’til someone made me aware of how often white kids being taught HF used the excuse to torment their black classmates with the word “nigger” by “discussing the homework.” Black children can still be made to suffer a great deal in ways few white people in this country can imagine and consequently never seem to worry about when making all their points about what’s wrong and right. So I believe that if the book’s in the curriculum in a middle or high school, the teacher and parents should have the right to resort to the bowdlerized version if they deem it wise for their particular group of students.
    And FTLOG, the original’s not going anywhere. Right here and now, in a time where there is still a tremendous amount of racial hostility and very little control, it seems, by parents or teachers on how their little monsters treat other kids – I’m not going to protest one edition.

  22. I was able to tolerate use of the word Nigger in 5th grade, anybody really can. I’m actually glad I was exposed at a young age; it’s helped me think about others in a wider sense. Closing off such a negatively historical term to younger generations will only hurt them.

  23. Sean, this post impressed me the day I read it. I just revisited to see what comments it earned and I have to say, they impressed me more, if that’s possible.
    How wonderful it is to see people engaged and take the time to formulate intelligent responses to an opinion instead of stooping to insults or name-calling.
    Bravo for encouraging it!

  24. wrong, completely disagree – the justification is not cowardice, but greed. read new south’s justification on its own website: “this intended to counter the “preemptive censorship” that Dr. Gribben observes has caused these important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists nationwide.”
    curriculum lists lead to sales

  25. You are perfectly right, of course.
    And – “it is a matter of how you express that in the 21st century”. Well, no, it is not. It is very much a matter of how it was expressed in Twain’s time.
    I think this sort of thing happens only in America? I’m not sure I’ve heard of it anywhere else. Well, in England at one point they banned the song “Ba Ba black sheep”. Which is not entirely the same thing, though equally painfully silly.

  26. Sean,
    Like most, if not all commenters above, I applaud your post.
    We actually had a similar situation, here in Belgium –well, I should say the francophone community, really– with talks of censoring Tintin in the Congo because it was reductionist and racist.
    Now, is it? Sure. Is the N-word offensive, equally reductionist, and even harmful? Absolutely! But, those were the conditions back when those works were written. Let us, and our children, know that these things existed, were tolerated–no, accepted back then. Let them see where we come from as a society, so they can strive to move in a different direction.
    Such things haven’t vanished from our world, and if we start sweetening (and that’s also sweetening the matter)the past, how can we learn from it?
    Anyway, I could ramble on the subject ad vitam aeternam, but let me just congratulate you on a post well crafted and for saying truths that few dare express, and stop it at that.

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