The N Word: Too Bad for Literature?

Thursday, January 06, 2011

From NPR yesterday, an English professor has proposed a new edition of Huck Finn which removes the "N Word" from the book entirely.

English professor Al Gribben, from Auburn in Alabama of all places, believed that many K-12 schools were missing out on one of America's greatest books, and the lessons we learn from it, by refusing to add Huck Finn to their curriculum because of the use of the word "nigger" some 200 times throughout the book. This is his way of reviving the critical piece of American literature in schools.

But there are apparently plenty of groups, including, a multicultural and multiracial journalism society, believe that removal of "nigger" from the book, no matter how abrasive the word, "shortchanges schoolchildren because it skirts the lessons they need to learn." The American Library Association also opposes the move, calling it censorship:

Ms. BARBARA JONES (Office of Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association): To remove a word from a book is just a real insult to the author's wanting to, in this case, express how people spoke in that part of Missouri in the 19th century.

Professor Gribben's response:
Professor Alan Gribben is undeterred by all the criticism. He says those emails have just demonstrated how much we need this book. He says even though they all argued for leaving the N-word in "Huckleberry Finn," none would use the word itself.
I think the whole notion of school districts' banning of books is a failure of the educational system. It is an attempt from nervous, lazy, or ideologically extreme parents to shield their children from what the world looks like in all its forms. That schools ban Huck Finn is the school's fault, not Mark Twain's.

A great American work like Finn teaches us a lot about how we grew up. A responsible parent can teach their children what's right and wrong in a work of fiction. But to hide our eyes from how books like Finn addressed the topics and people of its day is wrong-headed and silly, in my opinion.

I think professor Gribben's heart is in the right place; he wants to make an important classic more accessible to students, and that he chose the word "slave" instead of "African American" or "negro" or whatever shows he at least was trying to keep the sentiment the same. But instead of censoring the book, I guess I would prefer that he spent his time arguing against school censorship than in censoring a book himself.



steves 11:56 AM  

I think that it is unfortunate to remove an otherwise great American Novel for the sake of a bad word. The reality is that, not all that long ago, it was acceptable to use that word and it was probably fairly common to use that owrd in everyday speech.

Children (even very young children) are perfectly capable of understanding that most books have language that is offensive or not polite and that they should not use it. I guess I can see no good reason to censor this book or change it to make it more "accessible" to the children. AFAIK, my daughters school still uses this book. I read it in school, but this was quite a while ago.

Sopor 4:20 PM  

Hasn't it been said that those who don't understand history, are doomed to repeat it?

Americans, humans in general, should not be sheltered from the truth of what we have done to each other. How else will we learn to accept ourselves as a whole race?

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