“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?

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