Sanitizing literature doesn’t make sense


I tried to say it. Out loud. Well, in print anyway. But my boss said that, even to make the point I’m about to make, the word has become so offensive in our culture that we won’t print it in the newspaper.

This column is all about the use of that word in two great American novels.

A publisher made the national news recently with its plans to rip the “N-word” from an edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and replace it with “slave.” How that will make any sense makes no sense to me.

But apparently, according to sources in news reports, some teachers don’t want to teach a text that has the “N-word” in it, although these days, they can probably get away with texts containing the “F-word.” Maybe not. I haven’t checked the protocols on that locally. Certainly, some of the movies I’ve heard have been shown in class contain the latter.

Some schools are still using “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn,” published in 1876 and 1884 respectively, in class. My son discussed his English class with me when he was in high school. When it came down to it, he couldn’t utter the epithet – even clinically. He used “N-word” because he had to. His mom and teachers would’ve killed him if he uttered the actual word rather than the word that communicates precisely the same word to our minds.

So it’s difficult to discuss in class. Well, times were different when that book was written. The world was different. It’s part of that world, not ours, where the “N-word” has been .banished to realms of offensiveness somewhere below that of the “F-word.”

The world in which the “N-word” was used was offensive. It was a world of segregation and racism, a place where the measure of a man was largely based on his skin color, not the content of his character. It was perpetuated in the language. It was disgusting. The people then were finding their way slowly out of that world under the guidance of, well, people like me (we’re common these days but not so much back then), who believe in freedom and equality for all men.

These stories are a reflection of that very thing, that very struggle.

New South Books is eliminating the “N-word,” a part of the raw discourse over the race theme that is central to the story of Huckleberry Finn and the attitudes of folks in that time. Instead, it will use the word “slave.” It’s also going to remove the word “Injun,” ironically a word that doesn’t get the “I-word” treatment.

This is intended to counter “pre-emptive censorship,” where the book isn’t discussed or taught at all because of the hated “N-word.” It is done in an effort to save the two great American novels. It’s ridiculous reasoning.

These words are obviously offensive today, but they were also used in that culture and are part of our history. We shouldn’t be so afraid of the ugly truth about our history. We should recognize it and learn from it. We should avoid the mistakes in our past.

We should take the correct lessons away from it, not a fearful belief that we are somehow complicit in killing Jews by teaching our children about the Holocaust or complicit in racism simply by allowing our children to read a racial epithet. Frank discussion about the sins of our history does not make us complicit in any of it. Frank discussion is necessary, and it doesn’t get more frank or unvarnished by modern sentiments than in the writings of the period under discussion.

While New South is not an arm of the government, the teachers who are too offended or scared to teach literature as it stands are. It is just shy of being real censorship, and this attempt to whitewash (oh, a “Tom Sawyer” reference!) the sins of our history is reminiscent of another great American novel, “1984,” the one that introduced us to “Newspeak.”

In the words of one character in that book: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”

This unreasoning fear has invaded the present as well.

Back in 2003, my boss at the time, a man for whom I hold much respect to this day, eliminated the “N-word” from a direct quote by a man convicted of murder who happened to be half-black. At his sentencing hearing, he said it was like his daddy always said: It always comes down to white folks and “n—-s,” or something to that effect.

In the quote, my editor changed the offending word into “N-word.” I always thought he should have left it as it stood. Leaving it out was pointless – as pointless as the forthcoming editing of this column.

So, what did you think of when you read “N-word”?

That’s right. You thought the very word we’re reluctant to say out loud in a clinical discussion about the word.

How about “F-word”?

The blog entry on the subject from New South Books doesn’t even go that far. It doesn’t identify the words it plans to change. It refers only to “two hurtful epithets,” actually making it difficult to ascertain exactly what the company is hoping to accomplish.

An ABC News story about this ironically noted within its text that it referred to one as the “N-word.” The writer and ABC apparently didn’t care about ticking off folks over Indians – or Native Americans, as we’re supposed to call them today. ABC News printed the word “Injun” in its story just like this column.

Among comments on New South’s site was a link to the N Nation blog (presumably the blog of a black filmmaker), which is often changed in the media to “N Nation.” Go figure.

For those who have been counting, I’ve now typed the N-word 11 times. After editing it’ll be hard to see, but you’ve thought the word more times than that with each new “N-word.” After editing, this column has exactly 14 euphemistic references to the word in addition to references like “the offending word.”

The irony surrounding our collective neurosis doesn’t stop here. Where do most of us hear the word most frequently? From black entertainers. Oops, sorry. African -American entertainers.