Whitewashed Huck Finn a Lost Opportunity to Learn

By Jason Menard,

You all know how the road to Hell is paved, right? Well, a report in Publishers Weekly suggests that a pair of scholars is editing the book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to remove segments that have caused the book to be banned from some schools. By following this path, these scholars are steering our kids away from exactly the wrong thing – an opportunity to learn.

While the motive behind this action — exposing more kids to a classic piece of literature — is good, the devil is in the details. And those details are leading us down a slippery slope where ideas that run counter to the culture can be smoothed over, made more palatable – and, thereby, neutered.

At hand is Twain’s frequent use of the N-word. So while a literary giant like Little Wayne can “nigga” his way through life with impunity, because he’s not a modern-era rapper, Twain’s cultural output is going to get edited to make it more palatable for today’s readers.

Yes, I’m well aware that this edition is designed only for schools and that the original offensive-to-modern-sensibilities version will continue to exist. But isn’t school the best place to address these issues? Is it not in an environment where a qualified teacher is overseeing a group discussion examining not just the word, but how it got there a better way to deal with the past other than just whitewashing it?

I started this with reference to one adage, so why stop at one? You know what they say about those who forget history, correct? Slave, the preferred alternative, is not the same as the N-word. And if this squeaky-clean version exists, how many schools are going to stockpile that version over the original – just to avoid potential conflicts and complaints?

Instead of removing this word from the book, we should highlight it. Today’s youth has become desensitized to the power of the N-word through music and cultural assimilation of the term. They don’t understand what the word truly means.

It’s not just a rhyme for “trigga” – it’s a word that’s filled with generations of hate, ignorance, and the worst of human frailties. It’s a word that grew powerful upon the backs of men who were powerless. It’s a word that should be retired from the English language as a whole – not just in edited books targetted to a school-aged audience. But until that word’s been eradicated from our society, our society must be educated about its meaning.

Kids know it’s a bad word. But it’s not enough to know that it’s bad – one has to know why it’s bad. And that comes from understanding the societal forces that led from slavery, through Emancipation, to the equal rights and Black Power movements, to where we are today. If a kid questions why this word – so taboo in our modern culture – is so freely used throughout a classic piece of literature, then maybe that sparks a discussion about the way the world used to be. We can revisit our society’s horrors and our successes, and we can teach how to overcome ignorance – not just ignore it.

The Conspiracy Theorists will come out saying that this is just the start of a long path towards castrating our culture’s harshest critics. After all, some of our greatest social commentary has come from the realm of fiction. I don’t see this issue as the foundation upon which a 1984-esque totalitarian state will arise (although, very likely, in that case the government would be editing out parts of 1984, wouldn’t they?)

One of the scholars stated that it’s not about eliminating the question of race from the equation, but rather, “it’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.” The thing is, how we express that in the 21st century is directly attributed to the lessons we’ve learned leading up to 2011. If you remove the initial expression, does the lesson get learned in the future?

In the end, it is nothing more than our society’s reluctance to deal with the harsh things in life. It’s our society’s insistence of treating children like idiots. Just because they’re amused by Jersey Shore doesn’t mean the capacity for deeper thought doesn’t exist.

Yes, it may be harder to have a discussion about this particular word, but the benefits of that discussion will be far more valuable to students than going through life ignorant of the past.

We haven’t always been a good people. We, as a white culture, have done a lot of bad things to a lot of different races. And future generations have to know about our collective mistakes so that they can learn from them and prevent them from occurring in the future.

Anything less and we’re just whitewashing the past.

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