Today I read yet another example of censorship that made me quite sad. In order to make the world a better place, some upstanding citizens decided to expunge an awful word from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s not that the offensive word “nigger” will be changed to the dubiously better word “slave” but that there are people actually asking for it and buying censored history from a publisher. It’s all the nuances of history that allow us to understand it. If we expunge the offensive bits of history from our collective memories, we only doom ourselves to repeat it. I hate the word but value the lesson its use teaches us. So did Samuel Clemens.
The people whom Huck and Jim encounter on the Mississippi are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynchers, thieves, liars, mows, frauds, child abusers, numbskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is ‘Nigger Jim,’ as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt.
Clemens wasn’t a racist prick. In fact he lamented the state of many of humanity’s affairs including the complete disregard of other human beings on the basis of race. If people would read a bit deeper into books than the customers of NewSouth Books, perhaps they’d learn something valuable. After all, it’s better to face your own unpleasant past (I’m looking at you, The South) than to teach your children to ignore it.
Is the word nigger necessary to the story? Yes! It was – and in many parts of the US, still is – thrown about so casually to refer to a people as useless commodities to be traded, used, and abused. Leaving the word exactly as it is in the story fills the modern insightful reader with as much disgust as Clemens had when he wrote it. It shows us just how dismissive the people of the era and area were (and – again – still are in many places) of an entire race. Isn’t that worth remembering? Isn’t the regrettable, painful, and damaging act of putting your hand on a hot stove also worth remembering? It’s how we learn.
So, to NewSouth Books and its customers, let me say it plainly: your short-sighted stupidity is near the top of the list of things that are wrong with our country today. Learn from your past, don’t run from it you fucking cowards.