Huckleberry Finn and Why Post-Racialists Get The Race Thing Wrong Again

Jose VilsonJose11 Comments

Huckleberry Finn and Jim, Legos

“They’re doing that thing again,” racially underrepresented people in this country must have whispered to themselves (and tweeted). When news broke out that the more than 200 instances of the word “nigger” would be substituted by the word “slave” in Huckleberry Finn, most of us said, “Of the 100 things on our list that need improvement in this country for racial relations, you chose THAT?!”

Erasing the n-word from one of the literary canon’s biggest children’s books is akin to erasing the “3/5ths” in the US Constitution as it pertains to slaves. Books, whether biographical or fictional in nature, serve as documentation of a history. Because Mark Twain decided to use that language in the book, he too shone a light to the customs and history of the time, no matter how deplorable we consider it. Once we try and erase a history, we beg our society to repeat the mistakes of the past. If someone erased the 3/5ths from the US Constitution, someone with little knowledge of US history could make a more profound case that the US Constitution did, in fact, address every single person living in the United States, and not strictly older, White, upper-class, Protestant males (despite the abundance of evidence to the contrary).

I get it, too. The word nigger rarely gets used except in the sometimes public confines of Black, Latino, and Asian zeitgeist and in pop culture as a reflection of those communities. Some Whites still use the epitaph as a means of degradations, but many of them, too, have gotten a pass for using it. It’s rather complex, and that’s why I would prefer it be in the text. Well, that is unless the educator usually in charge of helping students decipher text doesn’t know how to carefully manage race discussions.

Then, maybe I don’t want it taught. Maybe.

Because, when used in the book, it’s a harsh reminder to our communities that the word primarily ostracizes on a structural level. If we can’t have those discussions in earnest, then maybe we need a re-read of Huckleberry Finn. Maybe it’ll push us to keep having these discussions and stop acting like they never happened.

We need to uproot the causes and analyze what caused the weeds, but should the farmer decide to erase “weeds” from his or her vocabulary, their children won’t know what to do when they spring up again. Nameless, and still harmful.

Jose, who teaches math, folks. Math.

Comments 11

  1. “We need to uproot the causes and analyze what caused the weeds, but should the farmer decide to erase “weeds” from his or her vocabulary, their children won’t know what to do when they spring up again. Nameless, and still harmful.”
    Absolutely love this! Much respect.

  2. I loved what you wrote and definitely agree that removing the word erases more than the vulgarity of the N word but also its historical (yet unpleasant) context. Posted a link to this post on my blog too!

  3. I was talking with a friend last evening re: this topic. Perhaps it is good to have a version of Huckleberry Finn without the n-word is an option for teachers and students who may find it difficult to negotiate said word is good. I don’t know. I remember reading Huckleberry Finn as a junior in high school, and by that time, most students should have the intellectual and social maturity to engage in conversation and debate on the topics presented in the novel. I would think, though, that in the hands of a capable and well-informed teacher, reading Huckleberry Finn would be a rewarding experience.

  4. Changing the text by removing the word and replacing it with a more banal, euphemistic one doesn’t solve the difficulty of teaching Huck Finn. It’s the irony, satire, and the last third of the book that requires one’s best lessons and teaching. Books like Black Boy, Invisible Man, or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass feel more powerful, vivid, straightforward for high school students. Jane Smiley’s essay “Say it Ain’t So, Huck” might be the best one I’ve read on the subject.

  5. I much prefer The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Mark Twain was so very dark and cynical, and his later works are dreary and almost unreadably pessimistic. We should embrace the nabla. That will kill it off once and for all. Now, two hundred nabla is a fairly round figure, but, it was somewhat more than that, thus proving that even the math can be made somewhat vague in the future.

  6. Post

    In a way, Michael, it does belong to all of us since it matters so much. It’s all part of us.

    I wonder what led to the pessimism, Matt. Maybe the human condition and what he saw as fatalist?

    Anne, the difference between Huck Finn and everyone else on that list is the color of the author. Part of the authors’ vision for the story has lots to do with the author himself, and thus is a reflection of what they believe about the words they use. I’m in agreement with you still, but you bring up another controversial point about this Huck Finn business. Thanks.

    Teachermw, on point. That’s why I had a hard time writing the post, too. I think we do need to learn how to speak about culture when we’re serving as teachers. Hmm.

  7. Jose, I’m sure the Civil War was in some part source of Twain’s gloomy weltanschauung. That his readers thoroughly identified with him is undeniable. He was a legend in his own time. The point is that censorship always blows up in one’s own face. I’m sure Twain meant to use the nabla and slave interchangeably, but what does it matter what you call a slave? Was Twain a racist? Yes. Jim manages OK, but Twain saved all his bile for the Irish. Witness the treatment of “Pap” Finn in the great American novel. Arrah!

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