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The case against censoring ‘Huckleberry Finn’

The case against censoring ‘Huckleberry Finn’

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By now you’ve probably heard about the new editions of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by NewSouth Books that will not include any mention of the n-word, which had originally appeared in the book more than 200 times.

The n-word will be replaced by the word “slave,” part of an attempt by Auburn University professor Alan Gribben — who worked with NewSouth on the new edition — to keep the book in the hands of students.

The Washington Post’s Adam Serwer connects this move to the Republicans in the 112th Congress, who, in reading the Constitution on Thursday, planned to omit the section that counts slaves as worth only three-fifths of a person (also known as the “three fifths compromise”).

Serwer says reading this section reminds us that even a great and noble document like the U.S. Constitution can be flawed, and we should not ignore blemishes in our history. (Isn’t that how we learn from them?) Huck Finn itself is not a blemish, but of course the language and treatment are representative of that terrible time — a time that should be neither celebrated nor forgotten.

In Tempe, Ariz., about 12 years ago, parents sued a high school for making the book part of required reading for students. The case made its way to a federal appeals court and the parents eventually lost.

Other than that, there has been little involvement from government and courts on banning Huck Finn or other books. But maybe it’s time for an “official” opinion. Maybe it’s time somebody stepped in and said: OK, no more censoring books. And if a parent, or a teacher, or a student is still against it, they can be given an alternate assignment.

I think if you are going to teach books in school, students should be reading them in their original form.

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a fictional take on a nonfiction way of life in arguably the most important era in American history. It is also considered by many to be one of the great American novels. And this may sound insensitive, but part of what makes the book a great American novel is Twain’s use of dialect and vocabulary.

Not only is it a part of history, it was an attempt by an author to paint an accurate picture of the relationship between slaves and non-slaves in the pre-Civil War South. Twain didn’t like the n-word, but writing his book without it would have been like telling people that the Disney version of Pocahontas accurately portrays encounters between Native Americans and settlers. (Or any version of true events fictionalized for the purpose of telling the story to children.)

Censoring language from the novel is a way of changing Twain’s depiction of those relationships and pretending that a boy like Huckleberry Finn in the pre-Civil War South would actually call Jim a “slave” instead of how he often refers to him.

I first read “Huckleberry Finn” in 11th grade (and two times since), which I believe is an appropriate age (16-17) in terms of maturation for a student to understand the context of the language. Remember, we’re not talking about 4th graders, we’re talking about students who can see R-rated movies without an adult present.

But by removing such language from books students read in high school, we’re not giving them the opportunity to maturely process racial epithets in language. A 17-year-old who is not exposed to the n-word in Huckleberry Finn will undoubtedly have heard it on television, in music and online, where its use can certainly not be confused as educational.

A teen who sees the n-word from Huckleberry Finn’s mouth, in the context of slavery, is less likely to go around repeating it than one who hears it from Chris Rock or Lil Wayne.

Language — for better or worse — is not escapeable, but as you remove the harsh words in a period novel, you remove the novel’s poignancy, and the entire reason for teaching it in school in the first place.

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