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George Uba: Removing N-word ruins ‘Huck Finn’

Guest Commentary

Posted: January 22, 2011 9:27 p.m.
Updated: January 23, 2011 4:30 a.m.
 

I want to share my thoughts about replacing the notorious N-word in “Huckleberry Finn.” But not just yet. 

First, I need to say something about the nature of this canonical American literary text, which I taught to college students for many years as an English professor, specializing in American literature. And then I want to share with you a personal story.

The novel was never intended to be a racist screed, but to be a condemnation of racism. Slavery was an abomination to Twain; he recognized its deleterious effects on slaves and nonslaves alike. That the runaway Jim manages to emerge as one of the few admirable adults anywhere in the novel marks a human triumph. As Huck’s spiritual father and moral guide, Jim is blessed with a loving heart and a forgiving nature. Their story is unrivaled, and moving.

But I have my own little story, too. I am a professor, but also a parent. And like other parents, I read many books aloud to my children when they were young. They were at or near middle-school age when I took “Huckleberry Finn” from the shelf. I forewarned them that the N-word was used repeatedly in this book, not because Twain was a racist, but because it was the common word of his day, and he was a “realistic” writer.

And I warned them sternly that they were not to use this word. Not in the classroom, not on the playground.

Night after night, I tried to make my children appreciate the book’s bursts of humor and its profound yearning for racial harmony. But I found myself extracting neither hilarity nor meaning from the book. Instead, it became increasingly difficult for me to continue reading at all. I felt the impact of the N-word like a relentless pounding on my auditory conscience.

Understand that my own American-born parents had been interned during World War II and had dealt with the experience of being labeled “Japs” by the media, by their elected officials, and by ordinary citizens. Like them, I understood at a visceral level how hurtful words can be. 

Let me get to my point. Reading became a grind. Never had I experienced difficulty in reading this novel. Now, I was slogging through mud. Now, I recoiled as my eyes shot ahead to the next dangerous paragraph. Reading was pain.

Finally, I could not go on. Oh, I could read the book silently. I could quote sections of the book in my college literature classes. But reading the N-word out loud — again, and again, and yet again — to my own children began to give it an unwanted ... an unwanted what? Not acceptability. But currency.

It had been the common verbal coinage of an erstwhile racism. But that was then. Somehow I was now inadvertently contemporizing it through the sounds emanating from my own throat.

My kids understood that this was a bad word. It was I who had failed to see the obvious: A hateful word read silently is not the same as the one performed out loud. After several dozen pages, I finally declared a textual truce:  I would henceforth abandon the N-word in favor of the word “negro,” while also cautioning that this word, too, was not to be used in the classroom or the playground.  Dutifully and unnecessarily, I declared that this word was now substituting for the real one and that Twain was still a “realistic” writer.

So much for teaching success and parental wisdom.

Still, my decision to change the N-word to one that seemed less harmful allowed me to navigate the rest of the novel without incident.

So what is my view of the current controversy? Surely I must favor the substitution of the word “slave” for the N-word. Call it editorial privilege, not sanitization. Call it sensitivity. But no. I believe that “Huckleberry Finn” would be disabled through such a publishing procedure.

The book’s use of the racial epithet, and its arguably demeaning imitation of slave vernacular, must always be situated historically, and yes, realistically. The word “slave” cannot fill in without doing irreparable damage to the text.

But reading aloud is another matter. I discovered my opinion by stumbling into it. By preserving the text, but altering the word during oral performance, I had foregrounded the changes I’d made — and the reasons for making them.

Depending on context and on audience age, I may in the future elect to read the original text or not, but I am relieved to know that I need not always pronounce aloud a word so starkly imbedded in a grievous past.  

George Uba, PhD, is professor and chair of the Department of English at California State University, Northridge. Readers can e-mail him at george.uba@csun.edu. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.

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