January 8, 2011 10:08:00 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
"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
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 immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.