Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: Now with More Whitewash!

Posted: January 7, 2011 in Culture

I know everyone and their uncle is sounding off about this right now, but I felt it particularly appropo because one of the commentors on my DADT post challenged my claim that race relations in the USA are getting worse.  This news couldn’t have been timelier. For those who haven’t heard, NewSouth Books is about to publish an edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by the legendary Mark Twain aka Samuel Clemens, with all instances of the word “nigger” (over 200) changed to the word “slave”.  Here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth:

An excerpt from the editor’s introduction to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition

In his introduction, the editor, Dr. Alan Gribben, states:

in this edition I have translated each usage of the n-word to read “slave” instead, since the term “slave” is closest in meaning and implication.

Really? That was not my understanding.  Are the black people I know constantly calling each other “slave”?  Perhaps some research is in order.  To the Online Etymology Dictionary!  The OED says:

niggerLook up nigger at
1786, earlier neger (1568, Scottish and northern England dialect), from Fr. nègre, from Sp. negro (see Negro).

So “nigger” is from “negro”, which of course means “black”.  So wouldn’t the word “closest in meaning and implication” be either “negro” or “black”?  Someone please correct me if I’m wrong here. But more to the point, it seems to me that the word “slave” is magnitudes more offensive than “nigger”.  Seriously, what could be more offensive than calling someone “slave”?  Think of the scene in Gladiator where Emperor Commodus says to Maximus, “How dare you turn your back on me, SLAVE?!”  It’s like the ultimate burn.  More importantly, this word replacement implies that all “niggers”, everywhere, ever, are “slaves”.  Which is absurd, and couldn’t be further from the truth.  Even during the time period depicted in the novel, not all blacks in America were slaves.  This was a seriously bad move editorially. Mr. Gibbons goes on to say that

As a notoriously commercial writer who watched for every opportunity to enlarge the mass market for his works, [Twain] presumably would have been quick to adapt his language if he could have foreseen how today’s audiences recoil at racial slurs in a culturally altered country.

If Mr. Twain possessed such clairvoyance, I suspect he would have found his time better spent writing allegories against the evils of Political Correctness, and its corollary, Thoughtcrime.  If graverolling were possible, Twain would definitely be doing it right now.  Handwringing over the hurtfulness of a word hundreds of years old, a century and a half after the end of slavery, and half a century after the Civil Rights Movement succeeded in its goals?  What the hell?  You call this progress?

I’d like to ask my audience what a post-racist society would look like.  Is it one where we ban all racial slurs, thereby removing the possibility of race-based hurt to minorities?  Or is it one where we simply don’t give a shit about race, much less mere words? And if the term “nigger” is inherently hurtful, how is it that nearly every time I’ve ever heard black people talking to each other, they refer to each other as “nigger” as often as possible?  Oh wait, I’ve heard an answer to this before, and it goes like this:  the term “nigger” is only offensive when it is spoken by whites. That, my friend, is racism in the raw.  It’s not the word, it’s the race of the speaker that counts.  And *that* is precisely why censoring the word “nigger” out of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, now, in 2011, is rock-solid evidence that our society is becoming more racist, not less.  Samuel Clemens was white.  That’s the only fact that matters here.  He was white, so his use of the word nigger was racist.  I don’t hear anyone assailing the authors of gangster rap for being racist due to their incessant use of the word “nigger”.  Of course not, they’re black.  The word is race-coded.  The more taboo it becomes to whites, the more racist our society is.  It’s a great litmus test.

At this point, if I were making this argument in person, to a live audience, it would be pointed out that I’m a white male and that my opinion is therefore invalid.  If you don’t believe me, I am quite willing to meet you in person, provided you live in the Seattle area, and repeat this experiment.  It’s happened to me countless times. I’m not known to be one to back down from difficult subjects, race included.  Most white people, in my estimation, are so stone-cold-scared of being labeled racist that they would never challenge the prevailing belief that white people are born with the Original Sin of black oppression, and can simply never do enough to live it down.  Well, I’m here to rock that boat.  And to do so, I’d like to enlist the help of one of my favorite blacks, Frederick Douglass.  The following is from his speech “What the Black Man Wants”, delivered in 1865 at the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston.

Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, “What shall we do with the Negro?” I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are wormeaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan, and if they will not stay there, let them fall. And if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! If you see him on his way to school, let him alone, don’t disturb him! If you see him going to the dinner table at a hotel, let him go! If you see him going to the ballot- box, let him alone, don’t disturb him! If you see him going into a work-shop, just let him alone,–your interference is doing him a positive injury. Gen. Banks’ “preparation” is of a piece with this attempt to prop up the Negro. Let him fall if he cannot stand alone!

Have we followed Mr. Douglass’ advice?

  1. Hellrod T3h says:

    This still doesn’t prove an overall decrease in teh qualolity of race relations…

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