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Today in Post-Race History: Nigger x 219

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Today in Post-Race History: Nigger x 219

*Someone please cue my righteous indignation music*

It seems that we have officially reached the end of days.  Birds are falling out of the sky; dead fish are coming in with the tide.  News outlets are doing their best not to refer to Jared Loughner’s acts as ones of terrorism, and simply make efforts to describe him as a crazy person (because white people only do this kind of thing when they are mentally unstable, and we all know how violent mentally unstable people are.  Besides, it’s only terrorism if you shoot Americans in the name of Allah.).  And soon you will be able to read Huck Finn without ever having to set eyes upon the word, nigger.

Why is Will Smith busy being a stage dad when we need him most?

Indeed, the beginning of last week proved ominous.  Last Monday, I read that the adorable James Franco (#nohetero) is slated to write and direct a film version of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.  My Twitter feed also informed me that NewSouth Books will be publishing an edition of Twain’s 1885 classic, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn sans the words injun and the aformentioned nigger.  Upon reading that by next month I could purchase a copy of Huck Finn with nigger expurgated from it, I was so enraged, the only thing that could have possibly upset me more was somebody talking about my mama.  Whatever can a non-nigger version of Huck Finn, et. al. portend?  Surely some scientist has found a way to give pigs wings.

As was probably expected, the response to NewSouth’s choice to replace nigger with slave and injun with Indian compelled a deluge of responses.  I need not too lengthily reiterate them here except, perhaps, to express my agreement that readers should encounter the word nigger all 219 times it appears in the novel for all the smart reasons the pundits probably articulated.  Yes, if NewSouth can plausibly alter a text in this way, then we should be somewhat concerned about what kind of editing precedents such an act sets.  And yes, keeping nigger in the text preserves the realist effort at authenticity.  And yes, instead of excising nigger and injun from the novel we should regard Finn’s use of such terms as “teachable moments” where we might discuss why Huck speaks that way, and what it means for us to say that our 21st century selves are appalled by such language.  Although, as I mentioned in my post on To Kill a Mockingbird, I imagine doing so would be incredibly difficult since we live in a culture that has yet to populate a lexicon to delineate the space between Racist and Not racist.  As such, those who might instruct during those “teachable moments” have no rubric to employ, especially if words are removed from the language we already have circulating.  One cannot teach what is not there.  Alas, classroom discomfort would not be ameliorated with the patience and wisdom of a properly trained teacher.

And yes, what we see in these editorial choices is a kind white privilege, yet again, flexing its occasionally invisible, yet seemingly insurmountable muscle by determining which words, which historical realities are unseemly and therefore worthy of omission.  NewSouth implicitly justifies these changes by employing a real life college professor–as opposed to one who just slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night–and Twain scholar, Alan Gribben, to head the project.  In his comments about the matter, Gribben conveniently buttresses the decision to remove nigger from Huck Finn by mentioning that not only did he grow up not hearing the word nigger, but his daughter had a black friend who  “loathed the book [and therefore presumably] could barely read it,” because nigger appears in it 219 times.  The underlying meaning of such comments, it seems, is that this exercise is yet another white liberal altruistic endeavor that inevitably contributes to the benefit–and comfort–of black students everywhere, and not one that seeks to era[c]e a piece of history that documents a moment when white people were less polite and/or well-meaning.

In his introduction to this new edition, Gribben writes:

We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers. [...] As a notoriously commercial writer who watched for every opportunity to enlarge the mass market for his works, he 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.

And later:

Through a succession of firsthand experiences, this editor gradually concluded that an epithet-free edition of Twain’s books is necessary today. For nearly forty years I have led college classes, bookstore forums, and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in California, Texas, New York, and Alabama, and I always recoiled from uttering the racial slurs spoken by numerous characters, including Tom and Huck. I invariably substituted the word “slave” for Twain’s ubiquitous n-word whenever I read any passages aloud. Students and audience members seemed to prefer this expedient, and I could detect a visible sense of relief each time, as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed. Indeed, numerous communities currently ban Huckleberry Finn as required reading in public schools owing to its offensive racial language and have quietly moved the title to voluntary reading lists. The American Library Association lists the novel as one of the most frequently challenged books across the nation.

My understanding about this situation crystallized into a definite resolve. Unquestionably both novels can be enjoyed just as deeply and authentically if readers are not obliged to confront the n-word on so many pages. Consequently 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. Although the text loses some of the caustic sting that the n-word carries, that price seems small compared to the revolting effect that the more offensive word has on contemporary readers. Moreover, slavery is recognized globally as an affront to humanity.

As our collective addiction to prescription pills and S.U.V.s indicates, Americans apparently believe that they need not be uncomfortable in any given situation.  And NewSouth Books, it seems, has come up with a literary pill that will ease any pain brought on by reading those aforementioned impolite words uttered by Twain’s main character, Huck Finn.  But what is most bothersome about the entire situation is not simply what I’ve outlined above or that it inevitably sanitizes, anachronizes the past, but also that the chosen substitutes, the synonyms employed to ameliorate the presumed unease are, in my mind, thoroughly unacceptable.

First, in a move that seems antithetical to Sherman Alexie’s insistence of its use, the replacement of injun with indian in Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, sadly, appeals to the editors.  Despite how blatantly unsatisfactory the substitution is, Gribben shrugs off the obvious issues with the choice, parenthetically noting that “‘Indian’ itself commemorates a misnomer dating back to Columbus.”  Sure, the dialect and impoliteness seem no longer an issue, but the term remains rooted in whiteness and colonization and racism and misnaming and… But that’s ok, I guess.  We want the same Eurocentric taste, but we want it less filling.  A similarly alarming set of questions arise with the use of the slave to replace nigger, that can be codified by simply asking: If the editors found slave an acceptable substitute for nigger, what then does it say about their, our understanding of what it means to be a slave?  In other words why is slave a feasible and preferable replacement for nigger?

Despite the ease with which might transpose the letters, slave, in my mind, is no salve.  If one believes slave an ameliorative euphemism for nigger, then both the editors and advocates of this change have either only read Virginia textbooks or categorically shut their eyes to the reality that Huck Finn and Nigger Jim are not floating down the Mississippi on a raft because they cannot afford steamboat tickets or simply for the adventure of it, but in an effort to escape a condition that systemically and systematically attempted to dehumanize a group of people for hundreds of years.  Hortense Spillers words it much more eloquently, “It must be conceded that African-Americans, under the press of a hostile and compulsory patriarchal order, bound and determined to destroy them, or to preserve them only in the service and at the behest of the master class, exercised a degree of courage and will to survive that startles the imagination even now.”  To treat slave as a milder and more agreeable descriptor than nigger is to egregiously misunderstand and/or understate what it meant to be a slave and what it meant to both survive and pursue one’s freedom–and humanity–under such conditions.

Finally, suggesting that slave is a more appealing option than nigger inevitably racializes the former term, and therefore further embeds it within the realm of blackness.  We accept, with ease, the argument that nigger is a pejorative to describe blacks exclusively, and a term, once suffixes have been exchanged, that at best can only be employed by blacks amongst blacks and not by members of other racial groups.  Replacing such a black term with the word slave, then, with a such rhetorical maneuver invites interlocutors to understand blackness, on some level, as a prerequisite for enslavement.  Which is to say that even in 2011, despite the fact that slavery has and still does exist without black people, 21st century readers think that nigger = slave = black.  Messy math, perhaps, but the ease with which such terms have been interchanged not only indicates how our 21st century selves still cannot fully appreciate all the implications of being on the bondage side of that “peculiar institution” to the extent that we find the word slave more polite than the word nigger, but such efforts also reveal how residual, albeit unspoken and symbolic denials of black people’s humanity are still, somehow, acceptable.  A most ironic lesson to learn while reading Huck Finn.

And I am reminded, again, why nihilism is so attractive to me.