Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Huckleberry Finn and the N-Word
As soon as I read the news that a Mark Twain scholar was working with NewSouth books to publish a new version of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the oft used "N-word" with "slave," I began to compose a blog post in my head lambasting changing the book.
My first thought was whether or not I would actually use the N-word in the post. I had noticed that lots of white folks were using it in their commentaries, possibly taking some delight in the rare chance to use a word forbidden to our mouths. I decided to not join them, as much as I think the idea of removing it from the book is wrong on about a thousand revisionist levels, which have been opined about everywhere at this point. (Do your own Google search to read for yourself).
I ascribe to the view that African American people can do what they want with the word -- reclaim it, use it affectionately among themselves, rail against other black folks who use it affectionately among themselves -- but that there is never a reason for white folks to use the word.
My family has a complicated relationship with the word. My adult kids, my grandkids, and my spouse are black. I am white. When my kids were growing up, I did not allow the word in our home, no matter how its use was intended (my son and his friends, as teenagers, used the word like punctuation amongst themselves). And who was I to say, "No?" Well, I was the mom, that's who, and I demanded our home be N-word free. Not that it stopped them, but it stopped them in our house.
Then, seven years ago, my now-spouse came into my life, complete with her comfort with using the word in all of its affectionate permutations. "My (N-word)!," she would exclaim to other black friends, making some of them uncomfortable. They suggested substituting "nickel," especially in mixed crowds, as in "My Nickel!" She does the best she can, and it's become a humorous inside joke among our friends.
So how does this all relate to Huckleberry Finn? While it is wrong to remove the word from the book, the use of it does create challenges for teachers teaching the book, especially if the teacher is white and the classroom is white or racially mixed. I've heard horrible stories from black friends about sitting through lessons about slavery or Jim Crow taught by an ill-informed white teacher or how bad it felt to be the only black kid in the class during those lessons.
The answer, however, is not to revise the book -- and our history along with it -- it's to teach the teachers how to address books like Huckleberry Finn (and the use of the N-word) in a way that advances children's understanding of racism, the history of race in our country, and our current oh-so-not-very "post-racial" America.
For example, how many white kids who listen to rap think it's okay to use the N-word because it is all over the music. And what about it being all over the music? Let's talk about that, teachers. Huckleberry Finn could be the perfect "then and now" to jump into that discussion.
So last night, after all this was swirling in my head for a few hours, I was riding in the car with my 28 year old son, who still embraces using the N-word with his homies, and I decided to ask his opinion. It went something like this (minus his frequent use of the N-word, which I will not write, even to capture the "flava" of our conversation here):
Me: So did you hear about the new version of Huckleberry Finn they are going to release?
Son: That old racist book, what's up with that?
Me: They are doing a version where they replace the "N-word" with "slave."
Son: Well that's a bunch of shit.
Me: The people doing it think it will make it easier to teach in classes.
Son: Well hell yeah, because that book be teaching white kids about the word and then they think they can use it.
Me: But it's part of our history and an opportunity to talk about racism if the teacher does it right.
Son: If a white teacher or a white kid had used "(N-word)" in class, I would of had to have hit them, and then I would have been sent to the principle's office, kicked out of school, and just been labeled another (N-word) who acts violent in school.
Me: But I thought you said changing the book is wrong.
Son: It is. But I still woulda had to have hit them.
Conversation ends. His cell phone rings. "Wassup (N-word)?!"
My point exactly, I think. Well sort of.
Be sure to read these two excellent related posts from the perspective from Elon James White of "This Week in Blackness" fame: His self described "snarky" and "serious" versions.