eber_slave_parlour

“Huck Finn,” Roger Ebert, “Nigger” & Me

This week, literary and mainstream media have been abuzz with an Alabama publisher’s decision to remove the word “nigger” from classic American author Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Says The Guardian:

A new US edition of Mark Twain‘s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to be published with a notable language alteration: all instances of the offensive racial term “nigger” are to be expunged.

The word occurs more than 200 times in Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, and its 1876 precursor, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which tell the story of the boys’ adventures along the Mississippi river in the mid-19th century. In the new edition, the word will be replaced in each instance by “slave”. The word “injun” will also be replaced in the text.

The new edition’s Alabama-based publisher, NewSouth books, says the development is a “bold move compassionately advocated” by the book’s editor, Twain scholar Dr Alan Gribben of Auburn University, Montgomery. It will have the effect, the publisher claims, of replacing “two hurtful epithets” in order to “counter the ‘pre-emptive censorship‘ that Dr Gribben observes has caused these important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists worldwide.”

In response to the change, noted American movie and culture critic, Roger Ebert tweeted the following:

“I’d rather be called a Nigger than a Slave.”

And then some black people got upset. Because that is what we do, we get upset. Whether we do anything constructive after we get upset is another story. However, it is interesting that it took Ebert’s twitter statement to capture the attention of my peers, rather than the whole story itself. Roger Ebert is white who is happily married to a black woman…but is still white. As a white man he wouldn’t normally be associated with the word “nigger,” “nigga,” or “negro,” and in his statement he demonstrates that he is in the position to have a choice of what to be called, a choice that is not available to black people in this country when the slur is hurled at them. Even still, as a black woman, I agree with his statement fully, and don’t agree with NewSouth’s decision.

The wonderful thing about literature is it’s power to place history in a context that isn’t as factual as it is narrative, making it easier for students to understand. I read both books in grade-school, but I also had a teacher and parent who were smart enough to teach me about context, history and society then and now. As a pre-teen, reading the books also showed me that the 1990-something world I was living in was a walk in the park compared to those of women who came before, and that I was to be thankful for everything, but realize what I had come from. I had grown up hearing the word “nigger” and was explicitly taught that it was NOT who I was, and more importantly—slavery was over, and I could have anything I wanted as long as I worked hard.

To change the word “nigger” to “slave” in Huckleberry Finn, which is wrapped in good intentions, would also to be to change the climate of that time—essentially altering history. During that period, the term “nigger” was as commonplace as “dude” when it came to describing black slaves. It’s a horrible fact, but it’s a fact. It’s a perfect description of how permissibly evil our society was at that time, why sugarcoat it? Students growing up in America need to know it’s history, and not the Lifetime movie version. We have to teach slavery and it’s 400 year legacy + post-civilization impact in it’s entirety, in order to evolve as this “multicultural nation” that many of us would like to describe. Some would argue that we have gotten past it and it’s time to move on. We’ve already moved on, but we progress on the shoulder of family members who lived this history, and to ignore or soften it is an insult to their struggle.

Fast forward about 20+ years since I read the book. I am parking my car on the upper west side of New York City, which is basically a no-man’s land for SUVs. I’m swooping, swerving and circling blocks like a cop. Finally, I spot it – right to my left. One three-point turn later, then I’m swerving into the spot. A car pulls up. The driver, a white man says “hey did you see me waiting?” I say “no.” He proceeds to tell me that I wasn’t privy to the space and that he had been waiting, I proceeded to tell him that he obviously had no indications of it (blinking lights, proximity to the space, etc) so I had no way to decipher what he was thinking. Then, he demands that I move. I graciously say, “I’m sorry, but I am not leaving this spot.” He’s way more than surprised…he’s…appalled. So he tries to hurt me. He calls me a “nigger” and drives off. I’m upset, like “get the goon squad” upset for about 10 secs. Then it dawns on me, he wants me to be a nigger. He wants me to be a Huck Finn character. He doesn’t want me to have an education, a passport with more stamps than fingers, my own business…no, he wants me to be a nigger. But I know who I am, and I won’t let him affect me. So I laugh, go to a house party, drink beer and forget about it.

We give power to those who want to hurt us with words by accepting them. So go ahead, call me a nigger all you want. But slavery ended and is illegal. I am no one’s slave girl.

What are your thoughts chicas? Are you for or against the swap? What did you think of Ebert’s statement?

Last 5 posts by Shannon Washington

  • Great piece, Shanns…

  • thumbs up post

  • I read and enjoyed Mark Twain’s books when I was 12 or 13 years old during the Civil Rights Movement. As was pointed out in the article during that time the word was probably a synonym for everybody of African decent. I’ve heard the word used not only as a slur but as a term of endearment by some. If a change was going to be made why not use the term “colored” which was used after the publication of this book to describe black folk?

  • I also think that censoring the word will only contribute to its increased popularity and the situation in the class may get even worse since children will concentrate only on this word.

  • Thanks to different type of Black History article on the Washington name that I read on Yahoo, I was curious to the reference leading to this magazine. To my delightful surprise, I found yet more interesting articles such as this on your site.
    This article points to a very harsh reality such as I constantly point out and you have confirmed also, to the progressions made in tearing down the racial barriers versus the actual present day awareness and practices that we all make with ourselves and others. I have said that there has been a slight if not drastic slump in the continuation of healing and true moving forward of racial discontent and hatred. I feel as though the influx of media has not done much to the level of positive and in depth education on many things to do with cultures and religious practices. There seems to be this wait until something bad happens before anything is humanized and tried to be explained so that wrongful actions are attempted to be curbed or subdued.
    I love what the structural basis of what America is based on, the idea of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but unfortunately, we still have the same struggles to overcome, it’s just a different decade or century with a whole new twist. But, as you stated with the parking situation, that the actions upon which result in the other driver to need to press on with comments and actions that pull towards hatred of others without cause are solid proof of how our society is needing more than what we have thought we have done.
    On another point, which I have to say, is the ever more important part of showing restraint in situations which many times can never be worked at the time except by example. It is very hard to hold oneself back from either confronting, fighting, or trying to teach the people who we come upon suddenly with the reactions of hate or personal slurs. The way that you held restraint with the other driver is hard, but yet an example to the driver and others like him that his words are unfortunately “Passe” and you must move on to the next minute and continue your path, not dwell in his. We all know by now how great dwelling on the negative gets us…nowhere but down, on top of be a loser to someones’ gibberish.
    Day by day, my mindset is always to not participate in conversations that require siding or developing thoughts of degrading others for their race. I have practiced to not say any type of reference to race when I speak of most things. People always are surprised when they meet or see who I have been talking about and react by saying, ” You didn’t say he/she was a _____________”(fill in the blank with whatever you want). This I have been practicing for over twenty years now, and still have continual moments that I have to deal with people who are not understanding why telling them something that had nothing to do with why I was talking about the person(s) should have been mentioned in the start. I am amazed that some people still require knowledge of race or religion as a prerequisite to meeting or dealing with someone. Granted, their might be reasons in some situations, i.e. hiring someone at a womens’ crisis center probably wouldn’t be smart to hire a guy, so that would be an understandable moment to ask such questions.
    But if we look at our examples is politics, entertainment business, media sources, and neighborhoods, we undoubtedly are going through times where there aren’t enough out there that are pointing toward positive movement and good rounded education. The people and organizations that do do these things are still little known and struggle in a society that says “I thought we were done with what needed to be done, why is this needed?”
    Even though my inner self has overcome many obstacles, I still have to continue to educate myself and practice daily the actions and reactions that will hopefully be an example to enough people (even if it’s only one that gets it). As a footnote, my way of trying to get to know and understand and experience cultural awareness is to try authentic foods and arts. This has brought my best results to begin new and fantastic experiences with others that tear down the walls of ignorance, and invite the fields of joy to your doorstep instead. Now, as Americans, based on the premise of our founding fathers dreams and struggles of those before our time, we owe it to ourselves to align our lives to the philosophy of real freedom and be an example to the rest of the world, of which many parts are still deep in the racial and religious oppression practices.
    I urge people to love and embrace what we have as available history, art, and more so that we can be what we all were meant to be, compassionate and understanding, not hateful and spiteful. We didn’t start most of this, and there are no rules that demand that we must play the game on and destroy the good in us. Paris Bihari- producer/engineer/musician/videographer/moving way past all that kind of guy.