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Educate Don't Censor: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the N-Word

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"Whenever we are reading the book aloud in this class, and you come across this word (points to word in book), you will replace it with the word slave." The book was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, the word on the board was nigger, and my English teacher, Mr. Bonsignore was establishing the ground rules for how we would engage with this classic American text with respect for both the author and each other. Instead of ending there, his statement was the beginning of a dialogue. He took a moment that was difficult and turned it into an opportunity to educate.

With the New South edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited by Alan Gribben, to replace the word "nigger" with the word "slave", these types of teachable moments are going to be lost. The class discussions about why a poor white boy in the antebellum South referred to a black man on a journey to freedom in such a way will disappear. While there are many ways to teach Huckleberry Finn the omission of a word that appears 219 times isn't a welcome alternative but an erasure--not just of the obstacles for educators who wish to use the book, but of what that deplorable word represents.

As a history teacher I know firsthand how difficult it is to teach about the antebellum South, but I also know how rewarding it is. There are ways to engage children to think about the atrocities of the past with compassion and respect. Contradictions in our history as well as our literature provide students with tools for understanding not only the complexities of the world but also their own identities. Replacing "nigger" with "slave" creates a silence around what was. Instead of omitting language that touches on difficult topics, teachers and administrators should focus on creating curricular supports for educators to deal with the challenges of teaching complicated subjects.

Children are remarkably intuitive and recognize what is spoken as well as what is unspoken. In my recent high-school US History class, my students had a very thoughtful discussion about "nigger", a word they are not allowed to use in my classroom, but was relevant to our discussion of the effects of Black Codes & Jim Crow Laws. I didn't include the word in the class notes, but one student made the connection between the KKK's reign of terror that began during Reconstruction and hate speech. I could have easily censured this student by saying, "that word is hurtful, please don't use it." Thankfully I didn't. By allowing them to understand the word as an outgrowth of the dehumanization of a people, they began to think critically about their own experiences. They understood the context of the word and then articulated critiques of what it means to be disrespected, some of which were the most insightful comments I'd heard from them all year.

If I were to censor their conversation, I would've shut down their process, controlled how they engaged the material. Gribben's editorial changes are another form of censorship, seeking to gloss over the complexities of life during a horrific period in American history. It is important to acknowledge this historical moment for all that it was, as it still affects us today. We should know about it to ensure that we never return there and never forget.

On a positive note, more students will now have access to a version of Huckleberry Finn, and that is a good thing. Gribben is just doing what many have done in their classrooms already. What's the big deal? The big deal is that even though many teachers use the word slave in class, the novel still said "nigger". Confronting that word is important. That confrontation was difficult for me as a young black girl, but the book was set during difficult times and I understood that even more as I read the book because my teacher was there to help me.

I'd like to encourage educators to choose an edition of Huckleberry Finn that respects the words of Twain as he wrote them & his critique of our nation's history. If the idea of explaining the dreaded "n-word" is too daunting,reach out, ask a colleague for support or turn to an online teacher community for help; like If your school district only allows you to use Gribben's version, use the edits as an opportunity for your students to think critically about why such an edition was considered necessary. Push them to think about Twain's intentions and why that word still offends the sensibilities of so many. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provides teachable moments, even in this act of censorship.