An American publisher is going to reprint Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn but it will replace the 200+ occasions of the “n” word with the word slave.
Years ago when the stage musical Miss Saigon opened in Toronto I was deluged with faxes from a group protesting the play, saying it was racist. In Miss Saigon some young Vietnamese women are depicted as desperate to marry US soldiers and escape their country and the war. We asked the question: did this happen in that time? The answer was, of course, yes. ( There were also complaints about some of the actors because they weren’t Asian but cast in Asian roles.) I had a real problem with the protestors not wanting to allow the production to depict history as it actually was. They wanted to sanitize it and make it all pretty and perfect because of their own discomfort with it. But that doesn’t change the facts.
The publisher that wants to take the “n” word out of Huck Finn is doing it so the story will be taught in more schools. Educators say African-American children are embarrassed by the word so the book isn’t being read by students. And when the new cleaned-up version makes it to the classrooms the students will be denied an opportunity to learn a bit about real human history, ugly as it was. They won’t be taught the reasons why that word isn’t appropriate and about the ignorant and backward-thinking people who have that word in their vocabulary. Kids of every colour and creed in those classes won’t learn why it’s not right to ever utter that word and to empathize with the “slaves” in Huck Finn.
I acknowledge that women used to be little more than possessions. We weren’t allowed to vote, we had to do whatever our husbands or fathers said and in some parts of the world we are still beaten to death for disobedience. I’ve known these things since I was a kid and they didn’t embarrass me. They empowered me and made me grateful for the advances we have made. (And those advances came largely because of men, not despite them; evolved, smart men.)
History doesn’t vanish because it goes through a washing machine and the ugly words are scrubbed out. I’m greatly opposed to the editing of a literary classic and the attempt to shove history, however unpleasant, into a drawer. If we don’t learn from it, we’re doomed to repeat it.