*Huckleberry Finn, a classic of American literature by Mark Twain, has fallen out of favor with school boards across the country because of the book’s liberal use of the word nigger.
Now a publisher would like to replace all instances of the word nigger with slave in an effort to get the book back into schools. And while this is a noble undertaking, it should be unnecessary because with or without the word nigger Huckleberry Finn should be read by American teenagers.
Words are not offensive in a vacuum. Consider that non-English speakers would have no sense of what nigger refers to without coaching. Consider also that many black people in contemporary America use nigger as a term of endearment. Ergo the meaning of a word can change over time.
Most important in the context of Huckleberry Finn then, is how Twain is using nigger. It is inarguable that the word is used as an epitaph and meant to demean the slave character Jim. But one of the themes of the book is the caring relationship between Huck and Jim, which belies the idea that Jim somehow has less worth as a person because he is black. The book is therefore engaging in satirical commentary by repeatedly using the word.
A piece of literature enjoys status as a classic when it does a great job of reflecting a theme or era, or location, or person. HF has been categorized as an American classic because it is a great snapshot of antebellum life on the Mississippi River. Classic works of art should be celebrated even when they reflect uncomfortable truths about the story of America. Perhaps this is when these works of art should be celebrated the most.
By contrast banning Huckleberry Finn unwittingly whitewashes American history. In doing so current educators are deprived of an opportunity to tackle the difficult but rich topic of American race relations; students are cheated of a chance to learn that the country is not perfect but can be improved.
Is there anyone who believes violence against African-Americans would increase because this book and word? The book should be assigned, and read, without edits. American teenagers can handle it. The question is whether the adults can.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. You can reach him at [email protected]