By Jeff Girod
You’re no Huckleberry! That’s according to one Southern publishing company that has decided your sensibilities are too delicate to read Mark Twain’s original version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Instead the publisher has substituted the word “slave” for the more controversial “n-word,” which appears 219 times, as well as switching the names of one of the main characters from “Injun Joe” to “Indian Joe.”
On the book’s dust jacket, Twain’s signature salt-and-pepper moustache has also been digitally coifed to a more socially non-threatening soul patch.
Look, I’m no idiot. I’m a white guy from the suburbs. Regardless of how many NWA albums I’ve listened to, I don’t go throwing the “n-word” around, either in print or in conversation. It’s a vile, disgusting word and a reminder of our country’s painful, shameful past. And let’s face it, from a selfish standpoint, the “n-word” is also career suicide. Every Caucasian who says the “n-word”—Roger Ebert, Mel Gibson, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Charlie Sheen, Seinfeld’s Kramer—winds up clumsily apologizing later or trying to justify his or her actions. There’s no justification for it. Don’t use it.
But in this case, I’m not the one using the “n-word,” it’s Mark freaking Twain. And he’s been using the “n-word” for 127 years—in schools, libraries and on Jeopardy! game squares—since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in 1884.
I can remember reading Huckleberry Finn as a young teenager and, even now, I recall that it sparked lively classroom discussions about where we were headed as a society, about basic human respect and how we should treat people. That was more than two decades ago . . .
But now, in 2011, a book publisher in Montgomery, Ala., thinks we should skip all that, that we should bypass the opportunity to have open and frank discussions with our kids about racism and slavery and about how even words can hurt. NewSouth Books has decided, after more than two centuries of canonized American literature, that somehow it’s become a better writer than Mark Twain. And that a timeless American classic can still be a timeless American classic—even if we change a few words here or there. So sure, what’s Mark Twain going to care? He’s been dead since before white suits and dangly black bowties went out of style.
And you know what? As long as we’re changing things, there are a few other things that could use some “sprucing up.” For instance, the NAACP—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—it seems like we should really change that word “colored.” Because, even though the NAACP is a civil rights organization with more than a century of dedicated service to promoting equality for all minorities . . . that word “colored” makes it sound, I don’t know, a little “racist-y.” So in order to keep the “C” in the NAACP’s acronym, why don’t we just change it to the National Association for the Advancement of Colorful People? No big deal. It’s only three extra letters. And that way, white people can join the NAACP, too. Because I have an uncle who wears a lot of Hawaiian shirts and he has some really colorful stories!
And I’ve always loved Eric Clapton’s classic rock ballad “Layla,” but that last five minutes with the piano coda just feels tacked-on. So I’m wondering if the good publishers from Montgomery, Ala., could find a way to track down every recording of Layla and get that teensy part edited out. Though by itself, it’s a really good piano solo, so maybe NewSouth Books could also find a way to slap it on to the back of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” (I’ve always loved “Piano Man” and wished it could be five minutes longer.)
Huckleberry Finn is one of the most anti-racist books ever written, and within it Twain takes a definite stance against slavery. Rewriting the portions that make us uncomfortable sends kids the message that we should avoid anything that might require deeper cultural dialogue.
And that’s the difference between an enduring American classic and a Podunk publisher nobody will remember in the time it takes you to say “Mark Twain.”
Contact Jeff Girod at firstname.lastname@example.org.