Birney Imes: Leave Huck Finn alone

January 8, 2011 10:08:00 PM

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 




"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 




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 




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