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

Jose Vilson Jose

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.