This post is dedicated Lawrence Lehman and Samuel L. Jackson. They’ll know why.
Warning- Language ahead.
I must admit that I was never crazy about Twain until I read his Diary of Eve and Defense of Harriet Shelley. Now, if he comes back as a zombie, I will kiss his rotting toes. Twain was a feminist before it was cool. Hell, before the word.
Huckleberry Finn is Twain’s novel about the family one has and the family one makes, it is about a young boy coming to realize that his society is not just, and it is usually one of the most banned or challenged books in the United States.
It’s a story about a raft trip down the Mississippi river pre-Civil War. Huck is escaping his father, and he travels with Jim, an escaped slave. The theme of the novel is Huck’s realization that Jim is not a slave, Jim is a person. While Huck never directly says it, Jim is also more of a father to Huck than Huck’s Pa.
One would suppose that the book makes the banned list because Jim isn’t the brightest blub in the bunch – he is a slave after all, he wouldn’t be educated – or because there are very few female characters of note. But we all know the reason why this book is banned and challenged. It’s because of one word that is used throughout the book.
I flinch even as type it. It’s that bad of a word. Shit. Fuck. Damn. Asshole. I have no problem typing. Nigger? I think my computer is going to hit me. But Lawrence and Samuel L. Jackson are right. If we are going to talk about the word and about racism, we should say the word.
It should be noted I have trouble typing cunt too.
I know that some cities have had Nigger word burials; Philadelphia is among them after all. I know that there is a difference between Nigger and Nigga. And I know that what I am about to say is the same thing that I said about every banned book so far, and I’m sorry for sounding like a broken record (or a corrupted MP3 file),but we can’t ban that which is uncomfortable.
There is a version of Huck Finn with the word slave substituted for Nigger, and the professor behind this said he did it so his students could actually read the book without flinching. I also realize that I am white woman, and that as such I have privilege that others don’t. And yet.
Words mean things. Nigger and slave are not the same. Crazy and dedicated are not the same. White and pale are not same. Twain chose that word for a reason. To change it, is to change the intent. It’s true that we have seen this done multiple times. Look at Lucas and his Han Solo shots Greedo (Gosh, I almost typed Greebo) fiasco.
The difference is that it’s the creator doing the messing around, though.
Replacing a hate word, such as a Nigger, with a more neutral word, such as slave, does not convey the hatred, the disrespect, the racism of the time. And that was why Twain wrote the book after all, wasn’t it? And perhaps that is my privilege talking. But perhaps note. Movies too can be banned and edited. The Stoning of Sorya M. is one difficult read and one difficult watch, but remove that stoning at the end of the movie, and the movie lacks all power.
And think of that great essay “Mommy, what does nigger mean?” by Gloria Naylor – how different it would be if the word nigger was changed.
We read things that are hateful to other people all the time. Fairy tales? The eldest always gets shafted. How many stories were the women are degraded? And yes, perhaps they are not as loaded as the word nigger.
And then I think of the word “boy”. Boy is one of those words that if you live in a city, and are white, you do not use it to describe an African-American man, you just don’t. It’s wrong period. There’s never a service announcement or anything, but you just know. (Or you should, unless you have asshole parents). It is a loaded word in that situation. A few years ago, a school teacher in Philadelphia got into trouble with his high school students because he used the term boy to refer to them (they were 17-18). The teacher didn’t understand what the problem was. I think this was because he was from a pre-dominantly white small town, but I could be wrong.
Perhaps it is important for a word to lose that power to wound – and words wound better than sticks – but perhaps it is also important to know of that word’s power to wound.
(BTW- Lawrence, if you have read this whole ramble, I can’t say how happy and honored I am to know you. You have brought such joy into my life. Three Musketeers ride again next week!)