A Letter to My Colleagues on the N-Word in Twain
We all agree, I hope, that Huckleberry Finn should not be sanitized, bowdlerized, or prettified. Otherwise we would be being dishonest to our students. But more, it would be salutary to study the history of the n-word itself and the various ways in which it is used in the book.
When I was a young boy, my immigrant grandmother, trying her best to speak English, would use the phrase "the colored people," the n-word having already been forbidden in polite society, at least in Southern California. In grade school I learned that her phrase was inappropriate; one should say "Negroes." By the time I was in college, "Negroes" was thought of as totally inappropriate and condescending, and we were expected to use the term "Blacks." (This was the period of "Black Power.") Before I had finished graduate school, "Blacks" was passé and we were supposed to return to a variation of my grandmother's diction by saying "People of Color," which phrase became problematic when the number of colors that term included had to increase with the addition of Asians (then still referred to as Oriental), Latinos (then called Hispanics ), and Native Americans (then called American Indians). In about the middle of my teaching career, the proper term became "African-Americans," which, unless I'm lagging, is still the accepted term, though apparently I don't offend anyone when I occasionally revert to the term "Blacks" or I'd have heard about it before now.
As I look back, I cannot be sure in each case whether these changes in terminology were initiated by African-Americans or by the white (Caucasian?) liberal left, but I do know that I experienced more enforcement of proper usage by people of the latter persuasion then by those whom I knew who were African-American.
The point of this memoir is to illustrate that to all of us now (regardless of race) even the n-word means things that are—at least in some ways—different from what it meant to Mark Twain and especially to Huckleberry Finn. We must not only teach the book as written, but teach it historically, attending to the variations of meaning in the n-word as it is used in various points in the novel, neither absolving 19th-century America of its race prejudices nor screening ourselves from Twain's nuances because of 21st-century verbal prejudice of our own.
The irony of being so prejudiced against his use of a now discredited word that we cannot see what Twain was up to as a novelist is akin to allowing Huck's use of that word to blind us to the moral heroism in his saying "Well, then, I'll go to hell" and tearing up the note he had written to betray Jim. Sin lies not in the word but in the will. To expurgate Huckleberry Finn as if Mark Twain himself were what we would now call a racist because he faithfully recorded typical American speech would be to fall to a degree of blind prejudice totally inappropriate to a school of our supposedly enlightened quality. (Not that I think anyone here is suggesting such a thing.)
We should teach The Merchant of Venice responsibly without making Shylock a Martian instead of a Jew and teach Huck Finn responsibly without cleansing it of words we don't like.
(It is interesting that those who loudest cry "censorship!" when people object to the government's funding of art involving crosses in urine are of the same political stripe as those who loudest call for banning Mark Twain from schools. This is partly a function of our society's replacement of logic—the second art of the trivium, the other two being grammar and rhetoric—with political correctness as the fundamental content of education. As a result, the latter can pretend to absolute moral authority without ever having to answer to the demands of the former.)