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Three Ways Removing the N-Word Will Screw Up 'Huck Finn' Three Ways Removing the N-Word Will Screw Up 'Huck Finn'

Three Ways Removing the N-Word Will Screw Up 'Huck Finn'

by Cord Jefferson
January 6, 2011

A new edition of Mark Twain’s seminal Huckleberry Finn is going to be scrubbed clean of all 215 uses of "nigger." According to Alan Gribben, a Twain scholar who is leading the creation of the politically correct edition, "Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century."

This censorship is silly for a number of reasons, of course, but especially because the word that’s going to replace "nigger"—slave—simply won’t make sense a lot of the time. Here, a few instances:

1. Free blacks shouldn’t be called "free slaves," as it’s possible they were never slaves:

Pretty soon I went out on the road, trying to think what I better do, and I run across a boy walking, and asked him if he’d seen a strange slave dressed so and so… (page 292)

2. When racists are trying to deride blacks, "slave" doesn’t mean the same thing as "nigger." Take for instance, this rant from Huck’s father:

They call that a govment that can’t sell a free slave till he’s been in the state six months. Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and let’s on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to a set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a-hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free slave. (page 38)

3. When Twain has black characters use "nigger" amidst the rest of their phonetic patois, it’s a literary device showing how they’ve internalized and adopted their own denigration. When black characters call themselves "slaves," it’s merely a statement of fact. This is Jim talking about starting a bank with an acquaintance:

You know that one-laigged slave dat b’longs to old Misto Bradish? Well, he sot up a bank, en say anybody dat put in a dollar would git fo’ dollars mo’ at de en’ er de year. Well, all de slaves went in, but dey didn’t have much. I wuz de on’y one dat had much. (page 64)

You would think a literary academic like Alan Gribben would have more respect for the complexity of words and not try to use "slave" as a one-size-fits-all remedy for fictional racism. To quote Twain himself, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

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