Thursday, January 6, 2011

Huckleberry X

Is seeing a trained tiger in the circus, or a lazy one in the zoo, the same as seeing one in the wild? I would say no. I don't even think most pet owners know what it is to own a dog or a cat, but a neutered one. Not that I'm here to argue to keep male pets intact, but anyone who's dealt with an angry tomcat or heard his yowling knows that our tame, docile lap animals are but a cuddlier imitation of the real thing. And it suits the purpose; we own them for pleasure, not to experience a clawed, urine-stained battle with a testicularly driven feline.

So, when I heard that NewSouth Books was publishing a version of Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with all 219 instances of the word "nigger" replaced with "slave," I immediately flinched. It's a book we're almost all introduced to in America; it's been called The Great American Novel. It's one of the most banned books in existence, first for its blunt portrayal of slavery-era society in the South, then for how uncomfortable all those occurrences of the N-word made everybody, black or white. It's a squirm-inducing word, especially in company, but the word itself has been attributed a vile power shared by none other. And why is that? It's heard, in abbreviated format, in vernacular that Twain himself first popularized, in the pop songs of the current day. In fact, we could argue that we hear the word "nigga" more often today than "nigger" was uttered in hate in the recent past. It's a word that lays hidden wounds bare, but that does not mean it cannot serve a higher purpose.

Mr. Samuel Clemens knew what he was doing when he peppered his novel with it. It was not there because it was the common word for African-American slaves. How many times does it appear in the Emancipation Proclamation, or the 14th Amendment, or even the newspapers of the day? It was included precisely to hammer it into the reader's head how deeply this hate was internalized, how its very daily use dehumanized an entire race of people subjugated and treated like animals. We see the tale through the eyes of an outsider, Huck the river rat, barely raised by a drunken father, a boy raised without social mores. Untrained in manners, and more importantly, untrained in prejudice. He sees Jim as the good man he is, the smart man handicapped by his role in society and his almost crippling vernacular, and over the course of the story, we stop seeing Nigger Jim, and start seeing a man named Jim.

Tom Sawyer on the other hand, is us; like me, he was raised in the protective swaddling clothes of white privilege, and has taken every spoonful of what he's been fed without a grain of salt. And he never sees things Huck's way; in the end, he makes a game of freeing Jim, still treating him like chattel, a toy or plaything. Overcoming how we've been raised is one of life's greatest challenges, and we should be at least as sympathetic to those who try, fail and keep trying as we were to Robert Downey, Jr., who finally did manage to kick his own habits. If it were easy, we'd all be shining examples of humanity, instead of the flawed characters we are. Even Huck has to rebel against what he's been taught is "the way," and thinks he'll be damned to Hell if he helps Jim; his love for his friend Jim is so much that he says, "well then I will go to Hell!" and he does it anyway. The novel's great epiphany is that if an uneducated young boy can see the inherent evil of slavery and race hatred, then why can't we?

But there's so much more, and that is what the censors are arguing- that we are depriving young readers who've been taught to flinch and shudder at the sight of the N-word of the novel's other great many treasures. And I say, you have to eat your broccoli before you get dessert. I first read an abridged version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and was bored to tears. It wasn't until college that I re-read it in its entirety, and saw the institution of slavery for what it was, instead of a distant abstract of history. Could I have understood it alone, as a young student? Perhaps not, but that's what teachers are for. The history of slavery and its lasting aftereffects is important enough for us to endure students, teachers, parents and politicians squirming for the few short weeks it would take for schoolchildren to read this novel and understand why it had to be written. Would that mean some ignorant students might overuse the word? I'm sure, but it would also give the rest of the students a chance to stand up and call them out for it. Which would be a worthy lesson enough, in itself.

As Mark Twain himself argued, censoring a book is like denying a man steak because babies can't chew it. Great works of art sometimes make us profoundly uncomfortable. As someone marrying into a Southern family, I know that the echoes of slavery still ring, and I can understand why a publisher like NewSouth wants to transcend the past, but I don't think censorship is the right way to do it. Mark Twain threw a punch to the gut, and turning it into a slap on the wrist makes it something other than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


(As you can see, I went a whole couple days after saying goodbye, to writing a lengthy post. Do I contradict myself? So then, I contradict myself! I contain multitudes, to quote Whitman. As I write and read more often than view movies and gobble burgers, the tone of this blog will likely shift to the literary, so be advised.)

© 2010 Tommy Salami

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