The best and worst of times to use the n-word

Stan Thomas | 1/12/2011, 5 p.m.

Who could have guessed that Huck Finn's bad-boy antics would cause problems 125 years after he sprang from the fertile mind of author Mark Twain? What has Huck done now? Well, it's not so much what he's done as what he said--in this case, his liberal use of the n-word. Publisher NewSouth, Inc., spurred on by members of academia, has decided to revise the classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by excising the word. The edited version is due to hit bookstores in mid-February.

Huck Finn was originally published in the United States in 1885. Readers of the book know that Nigger Jim, a Black slave, is one of the main characters in the book. Written in the vernacular of the day, Huck Finn contains frequent use of the word "nigger" when referring to Jim and other Black characters. NewSouth's adaptation has replaced the offending word, which is used 219 times in the original, and substituted the word "slave."

Strangely enough, it wasn't until nearly 90 years after Huck Finn was first published that the book was removed from a school's required reading list because of the n-word.

David L. Ulin, writing in the Los Angeles Times, noted that the offensiveness of the word today is precisely why the book should remain undisturbed. "Literature...is not there to reassure us," he wrote, "it's supposed to reveal us... The fact that it makes us uncomfortable is part of the point."

According to the Afro (Afro-American Newspapers) website, Black scholars are split over the censored edition of Huck Finn. Syracuse University professor and cultural commentator Boyce Watkins is quoted as believing that removing the n-word makes the text "more palatable for today's schoolchildren and therefore more useful in modern classrooms." This is very true, especially when considering how Black children who are made to read the original version aloud in class must feel. Watkins asks if the novel can still makes its point without the word being used.

He thinks it can. He believes the publisher "made the right move."

While removing the slur may make Huck Finn "more palatable" for young readers, Black scholars opposed to the new version say it "whitewashes" the classic and "creates a slew of social ills."

Afro cites former Essence magazine editor Micahela Angela Davis in an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper: "I think this is so problematic on so many levels," Davis said. "It's not just history, it's literature, so it's art. When we get into really censoring art and censoring literature, we open up a Pandora's box. When we get into changing words, unwriting history, rearranging art, we start to put our democracy in danger. This is not making it palatable; this is censorship."

In a blog entry posted by Steve Peraza on The Weave, he cites a New York Times editorial that says the "trouble (with the new edition) isn't merely adulterating Twain's text... Substituting the word 'slave' makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the 'n-word' and has nothing to do with slavery." Peraza's post adds a different argument to the debate; an argument NewSouth fails to address.