In the past few days, the news and internet have been buzzing with talk of a new version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Auburn University professor Alan Gribben’s new edition of the book replaces the N-word, which is used 219 times, with the word “slave.” According to Gribben, many readers cannot get past Twain’s use of the N-word to understand the commentary he is making about American racism. Gribben may have a point. However, Huck Finn was published in 1884, and with it Twain was pointing out the complexities of racism and prejudice in 1840s Missouri by depicting life as it was. As Twain wrote, Jim Crow laws were being passed throughout the South, denying civil rights to African-Americans at a rapid pace. Are we to erase this depiction and forget about it?
Although I abhor the N-word, sanitizing history does not sit right with me. It is important that young people (and old for the matter) understand the history of racism. Reading novels, written during a period of immense oppression and segregation, gives people insight into the mistakes that our country has made and also points to some progress. We need to understand why the word was used, who used it, and the ways it oppressed and continues to oppress.
There is a dangerous trend happening in the United States right now. People are rewriting textbooks in several states to soften the atrocities of slavery. The governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, omitted any mention of slavery when celebrating the state’s Confederate History Month. And why, by the way, are we celebrating the Confederacy? Others, including Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, are pretending that the civil-rights era and the years prior to it were “not so bad” even though they remember distinctly and some participated in acts of racism. Still others are reminiscing about the “good old days”—the 1950s—when “life was simple.”
Having conducted hundreds of oral-history interviews, I know one thing for sure: People tend to offer a version of history that presents them in a favorable light. I’ve interviewed former segregationists who told me: “That’s the way it was. We didn’t know any different. We didn’t know it was wrong. We thought separate was really equal.” Comforting words, perhaps, but far from the truth.
Nothing is less comforting for Americans than the N-word. Taking it out of a book may make for easier reading, but to do so leads us down a slippery slope toward collective amnesia. The N-word has a vicious history in the United States, and one that must be remembered so that we don’t repeat it.