Huck Finn and the n-word

A new version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will be released on February 15, 2011 with all 219 instances of the n-word replaced by ‘slave’. The book also changes ‘injun’ to ‘Indian’. These changes were made in order to make it more acceptable for use in schools that have shied away from assigning this American classic to students because of fears that students and parents would find it offensive. Proponents of the change have argued that the book’s anti-racist message is largely unaffected by these changes and that what is lost by toning down the language this way is more than compensated for by having more people read this work.

This decision has resurrected two debates. One is whether the ‘n-word’ is still too explosive to be allowed into the curriculum and the other is whether we should tamper at all with the works of dead authors, especially in cases like this where Twain’s use was not casual. He deliberately used the word repeatedly to drive home a point about the nature of the racism of his times.

Comedian Louis C. K. takes issue with the idea that using euphemisms such as ‘the n-word’ is any less offensive than using the word it replaces. (Language advisory)

On an intellectual level, I agree with him that it seems absurd for us to tiptoe around words like this. They are, after all, just words. As he says, when I use euphemisms like ‘the n-word’ instead of the word itself, my brain and the listener’s brain know exactly what word I am referring to, so I have conveyed that word from my brain to the listener’s just as effectively as saying it out loud. The only difference is that my vocal cords have not vibrated to produce the appropriate sound waves in the air that in turn vibrated the listener’s eardrums accordingly to hear it. When viewed that way, such circumlocutions do seem silly.

But I still feel highly uncomfortable using the n-word and other words that have a history of being used as slurs, even if I use them purely descriptively or academically and have no bad intent. I think the reason is that anyone who is not a member of the group in question who uses such words has to make sure the context is such that it is clear that the word is not being used as a slur, and that can be tricky. Someone who uses euphemisms like ‘the n-word’ is essentially achieving two purposes: getting their message across while establishing their bona fides of having no racist motives. They are signaling to everyone around them that they disapprove of racist slurs.

Those who use the n-word without such clear signals run the risk of being perceived as racist, as the recent case of radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger demonstrates. Recall also the white aide to the mayor of Washington DC who in 1999 had to resign after using the word ‘niggardly’ (which means ‘miserly’ and has nothing to do with the n-word) even though he used the word perfectly correctly. His listeners had never heard of that word before and took it as a slur, and yet their ignorance cost him his job. People who belong to the group that the slur is aimed at run little risk of being misconstrued if they use it, which may explain why on the Huck Finn issue, the black commentators I have read seem to be the ones more likely to oppose the Bowdlerization of the book and want to retain the original wording.

But in the case of Huck Finn the author is not only dead and thus immune from recrimination, he is widely known as an opponent of racism. So who exactly runs the risk of being harmed by using the original text? Two nervous groups are teachers and school board members who have to approve and select books for the classroom. But why should they be nervous about selecting a widely acknowledged American anti-racist classic just because it contains the n-word? After all, all of us, and especially young people, are routinely exposed to it in popular culture.

It may be that the problem does not lie with having students encounter the word but that discussing the text as well as the common practice in literature classes of reading portions of the text aloud in class will result in students having to actually say the word out loud. This may well be a source of acute discomfort.

I can understand this. I have never said the n-word out loud in my life because of that same sense of discomfort. I have seen the word in print and heard it spoken often enough that it has ceased to shock me but the thought of saying (or even writing) it makes me uncomfortable. When it comes to the n-word, I can take it but can’t dish it out.

If a hardened old cynic like me feels that way, I can imagine that idealistic young people will recoil even more strongly at that prospect of saying and writing it. I suspect that this is why the original text is not used in schools, to spare students such discomfort.

On The Daily Show Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore had their usual droll and perceptive exchange on what underlies the controversy. (Language advisory)

(This clip aired on January 11, 2011. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)


  1. Matt says

    What bothered me about this who episode is those who cry “Censorship!!! The damn liberals are trying to censor an American classic! Boycott this publisher!” This is just a new edition of the book, modified to meet the threshold of what some deem “appropriate.” Unless I am missing a huge part of the story, nobody is making any attempt at eradicating the original text. If you want the unedited version, you can easily get it. Am I off base?

  2. Eric says

    Matt --

    Slightly off base, yeah. There’s always the risk that new readers will be unaware that there was any original text, and assume that this version is the right one. Now, with a media controversy this big, and a classic this well-known, I think it’s unlikely, but it is possible.

    My problem with it is that I don’t like the precedent it sets -- that making a book more palatable, more comfortable to read and discuss, is a good thing. The “N-word” should be uncomfortable to use! It should be a harsh, shameful reminder of a harsh, shameful element of American history. We won’t be doing schoolchildren any favors by trying to soften the impact.

    Sugar-coating this country’s history of slavery & racism doesn’t help anybody but racists.

  3. Steve LaBonne says

    I have very mixed feelings. Telling strongly on the negative side are all the reasons adduced by Eric. But part of me says that if this edition will help get a superb book- and one that, even without the offending word, still powerfully challenges our complacency about a shameful part of our history- into more school curricula, maybe it’s worth it.

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