Friday, January 14, 2011

Huck Finn and the N-word

Much has already been said recently about the new version of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the N-word (which appears more than 100 times in the book) with “slave.” I’m not sure I have much to add to the debate, but I’d like to say something about people who condemn a work with which they have little real familiarity.

When I was a reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, I lived in Boone and, therefore, covered any major event or speaker engagement that took place at Appalachian State University. One night, Ralph Abernathy was the speaker and when he took questions from the audience after his talk, someone asked him if he thought that Huckleberry Finn should be banned from schools.

“Yes, I strongly think it should be banned,” Abernathy answered. Having just re-read Huck Finn myself, I couldn’t understand his adamancy. So when it came time for the press to meet briefly with him afterwards, I stood next to him asked him outright, “Have you ever actually read Huckleberry Finn?” Abernathy shook his head and said he hadn’t but he didn’t want to read it.

“But,” I persisted, “it’s a beautiful book that speaks against slavery. Huck embraces Jim’s humanity in the end.” And then, before he could get away from me, I asked him for his address. “I will mail you my copy of the book if you promise me you’ll read it,” I said. Abernathy shrugged and gave me his address. I mailed my paperback copy and never heard back from him. He died a few years later.

I searched in vain on Google just now to see if Abernathy ever publicly retracted his advocacy for banning Huck Finn, but found nothing, not even evidence of Abernathy ever having publicly said it should be banned (perhaps because his statement was made in the pre-Internet ‘80s). I’m not sure if my package ever got to his home or, if it did, if he opened it.

Most people are uncomfortable with the N-word, as they should be—I won’t even say it aloud. I can understand the discomfort teachers might have in introducing a work in which it is used repeatedly. But I also think it has a place and a context in that book. Jim and other black people are referred to with this derogatory label, without any thought by the white people in the book except, finally, Huck Finn himself. He rises above the debasedness of his society and embraces Jim as his friend, willing even to go to hell for his friendship.

We owe it to Twain to preserve the book as he has written it. Surely a good teacher can impress upon his or her students that it is the white people who are in error here, for using such a word, and that every time it is repeated in the book, it is another example of their complacent hatred and stupidity, that with it, they demean themselves.

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