Publisher Drops 'Inflammatory Words' from Huck Finn

01/10/2011 01:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Alan Singer Social studies educator, Hofstra University,my opinions, of course, are my own

Twain used the terms because they were in common usage in the era of slavery. One of his goals was to challenge stereotypes about African Americans. The character he referred to as "Nigger Jim" was portrayed as decent, strong, and humane. Unfortunately, Twain shared his era's stereotypes about Native Americans and the character "Injun Joe" is a derelict and criminal.

As teachers, we are often confronted by young black people casually calling each other "nigger" or "nigga." They hear it on the street and in popular music, and they repeat it in school corridors and classrooms. Use of the "N-word" within the community has been defended by some African Americans as a term denoting group membership and mutual respect. It has been described as an attack on racism because the meaning of the word has supposedly been transformed into something new and empowering.

Not everyone is not with this formulation, particularly in the black community. In 2007, the New York City Council recently approved a symbolic ban on use of the "N-Word" in the city as a statement that racism and racist terms are unacceptable.

I find the claim of empowerment shallow and a poor substitute for political action against racism and injustice. The pain associated with the "N-Word" continues to haunt American society. Most whites teachers I know who have heard the word used as a racist epithet and who reject this use cannot say it out loud, even to discuss the issue of its meaning with their students. Most young black people I know who tolerate use of the term within their social groups remain deeply offended when whites use the "N-Word" as a term of comradery. When a word evokes this level of emotion, it is because the underlying feelings and biases behind the word remain in effect.

I strongly believe secondary school students need to see the way the word has been used throughout United States history as a weapon against black people. This quote from a 1981 interview with Lee Atwater, a Republican Party consultant and confidant of President Reagan and the first President Bush, shows how the sentiments behind the word continue to influence contemporary United States politics. According to Atwater, the way you traditionally swayed white voters, especially in the south, was by shouting "'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' [B]y 1968 you can't say 'nigger' -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff." By the 1980s, politicians were "getting so abstract" that they were "talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites."

Atwater's point is that both the politicians and their targeted voters know they are using code words for no longer acceptable racial epithets, and even though the phrases had become more "abstract," politicians were essentially still shouting "nigger" to get white votes.

As a high school teacher, I introduced a discussion of the use of the word "nigger" in the past by referencing Sojourner Truth, a black woman and former slave who was active in the women's rights movement of the 1850s. Her participation was frequently challenged by white activists who did not want woman's suffrage associated in the public's mind with abolition.

At the 1851 Akron, Ohio women's rights convention, Sojourner Truth delivered one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history. Truth could neither read nor write; however, Frances Gage, the president of the convention, included a report on the address and the audience's response in her reminiscences. In her report, Gage presented readers, as best as she could, with Sojourner Truth's accent, syntax and grammar. In the original Gage version, Sojourner Truth refers to herself and other African Americans as "niggers." In many printed versions of the speech, especially those intended for school use, editors have substituted blacks or Africans.

I provide students with three versions of the speech -- the original, one with the word "nigger" removed, and one that is more seriously revised, and ask them to decide which version the class should read aloud. This promotes a discussion of the use of the word "nigger" and racism in the past and present, requiring students to address ideas and feelings that are usually ignored.

I don't really have a problem with this edited version of Twain's Huck Finn, as long as the discussion of race and racism continues. If the discussion is dropped along with the word, it would be an educational tragedy.