Article Comment 

Birney Imes: Leave Huck Finn alone

 

Birney Imes

 

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain 

 

called ''Huckleberry Finn.'' There was nothing before. And there has 

 

been nothing as good since." 

 

Ernest Hemingway in 1935 

 

 

 

Mark Twain, dead for a 100 years, is still causing a ruckus. No doubt 

 

he would have something quotable to say about this latest business. 

 

An Auburn English professor and a small Alabama publisher are 

 

releasing a expurgated edition of the Twain classic, "The Adventures 

 

of Huckleberry Finn." The N-word, which appears more than 200 times in 

 

the book, has been removed; the professor thinks the word "slave" 

 

would make a more acceptable and thus more widely read book. 

 

It''s an irresistible subject and every commentator, it seems, has 

 

weighted in on the matter. A blogger from the London Daily Telegram 

 

characterized the overwhelming condemnation of the new book as a "mass 

 

allergic reaction." 

 

The man who said, "I never let schooling interfere with my education," 

 

would be delighted by the uproar. 

 

As we all know by now, the best way to draw attention to something is 

 

to ban it. Just ask the Itawamba County school board. Expect an uptick 

 

in interest in the book, the original version, that is. 

 

The word in question, the word few newspapers in this country will 

 

print, is reprehensible. It never fails to shock when I hear someone 

 

use it in the ugly, racist sense. And yes, Virginia, it''s still 

 

possible to hear it used that way in these parts. 

 

Faulkner used the word in his literature. So did Robert Penn Warren, 

 

Joseph Conrad and Flannery O''Connor. So has Spike Lee, Richard Pryor 

 

and Richard Wright. These artists strove for realism, accuracy -- for 

 

the precise word, for an unflinching view. 

 

Twain''s work in its original form offers students a chance to grapple 

 

with this troublesome word. This smiley face edition deprives them of 

 

that opportunity. As one commentator said, bowdlerizing Twain, removes 

 

"a chance for students to learn and adults to remember." 

 

Late Friday afternoon I had coffee with a friend, who happens to be 

 

black. After a moment''s hesitation, I broached the subject. He rubbed 

 

his hands as though he relished the idea of good conversation on a 

 

challenging, if well-worn topic. 

 

"It''s amazing to me we''re still talking about this word," he said, 

 

taking off his coat. "As we have shifted in our choice of words, it 

 

says something about the culture." 

 

"My father''s birth certificate says ''colored,''" he continued. "I use 

 

the word ''black'' in motivational speeches. With white people, I use 

 

the term ''African American.'' I do it for their comfort." 

 

"Bill Cosby about 10 years ago started a movement to bury that word," he said. 

 

My friend was referring to the harsh criticism Cosby leveled at black 

 

youth. In 2004 in a series of appearances, Cosby asserted that young 

 

African Americans are the "dirty laundry" many would prefer he not 

 

criticize. 

 

"Let me tell you something," the entertainer told a group of black 

 

activists. "Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, 

 

it''s cursing and calling each other (the N-word) as they''re walking up 

 

and down the street. They think they''re hip. They can''t read. They 

 

can''t write. They''re laughing and giggling, and they''re going 

 

nowhere." 

 

My friend said his church responded to Cosby''s criticism by holding a 

 

burial for the behaviors he condemned. 

 

Along with the "N-word," "peer pressure" and the "B-word," young 

 

people of the church wrote on slips of paper the negative forces in 

 

their life and put them in jars. The kids then buried this "dirty 

 

laundry." 

 

"I used to be a rapper," he admitted. "I used it." 

 

Asked if he''d been called the N-word and how he reacted, my friend 

 

said he''d gotten into a fight when he was 14 or 15 at the 

 

predominantly white private high school he attended. 

 

"Don''t talk about my mama and don''t call me the N-word," he said, now laughing. 

 

"It''s not what you''re called," he continued, "it''s what you answer to." 

 

That word is a reflection on the person using it, not on the person it 

 

was directed toward, he added. 

 

Mark Twain wrote, "Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy 

 

of it." By depriving students the opportunity to confront the ugly 

 

truth contained within Twain''s books, the well-meaning English 

 

professor implies today''s readers are somehow less worthy. I disagree. 

 

Birney Imes is the publisher of The Commercial Dispatch. E-mail him at 

 

birney@cdispatch.com.

 

Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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Reader Comments

Article Comment melody commented at 1/9/2011 9:34:00 PM:

I agree --leave the book as is.

 

Article Comment friendofafriend commented at 1/24/2011 10:26:00 PM:

If you watch a movie about hardened criminals in prison, you don't expect them to say "golly gosh-darn gee" and "fiddlesticks." If you read a book written in the 1800s about the ugly reality of slavery and racism, you don't expect them to say "African-Americans." This is censorship and a deliberate attempt to sanitize history. Inexcusable.

 

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