Tuesday, January 4, 2011

When you drove in here, did you notice a sign out in front that said, "Dead African-American storage"?

In celebration of the release of the long-withheld Mark Twain autobiography, NewSouth Books is publishing a new edition of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

And taking out all the "racial epithets".

All uses of the word "nigger" will be replaced with "slave", and uses of the word "Injun" will be removed altogether.  So "Nigger Jim" will now be "Slave Jim", and I guess "Injun Joe" will be referred to as..."Joe".

Jesus Fucking Wept.

OK, let me get this clear - it is bad to call someone a nigger.  It's the nuclear weapons of insults.  It is to black people what "Cunt" is to women, and "Liberal" is to liberals.  I get that, and I'm not arguing it.  I'm also not going to the tired "How come THEY can use the word and WE can't?" because it's as stupid as the overreaction to the word. 

Like all words, depending on where it is used, it has different meanings.  It is used with different intent in different situations.  In the vast number of uses by white people in everyday situations, it is intended to mean "person who I hate, and want to hurt as quickly as possible, and will go to the obvious physical characteristics to effect this injury".  And that's bad. 

But now let's look at fiction, also known as "pretend". In the vast, VAST number of cases, when a character uses said pejorative, it says far more about the character than the person to whom it's being said.  It's a shortcut, like (alas) putting a comic book in a person's hands implied simple-mindedness.  And it's done on purpose, expressly to make that point. In the films of Spike Lee  and Quentin Tarantino, it's used in both the negative and "colloquial" sense, and in nearly every case, it's easy to tell how it's intended by the tone, situation and characters involved.  Now some may complain that QT drops the N-bombs a bit too often, but his friends and castmembers are happy to relate that he doesn't "mean it".

It's called context.  When talking to a person, it's usually easy to tell how a statement is meant, be it as a joke, a serious comment or a wry observation on life.  It is, admittedly, far easier to misunderstand the printed word, as the visual and verbal clues we use in conversation are gone.  It's the reason we are reduced to adding acronymic codicils to our internet ramblings in the form of little smiley faces and short code phrases that if one tried to pronounce them, would sound like they are choking on a peach pit.  So one must take a moment to try to discern the intent of a writer, usually based on other examples of their writing, interviews, analyses of their work, and in many cases, the paragraphs at the end of each summary in the Cliff Notes. 

So in the case of Huck Finn, the argument is that is an impressionable young person were to read the book in an unsupervised environment, such flagrant use of the terms may give them the mistaken impression that they are okay to use.  And that might hold water, if there was a single person under the age of forty who would willingly read Huck Finn on his own, ever.  It is now a book which is read, grudgingly, in school, where there is a teacher at the front of the room, whose job it is to tell the little kiddos what they just read is about.  It is that point that they can be told the following:

The book is over a century old.  In said antediluvian times, such words were used commonly, right or wrong.

The author users the term to throw a harsh light on the fact that people of the time saw black people, slaves or no, as sub-human, a mindset with which he disagreed.  Example, the following snippet:

Anyone hurt?
Nope. Killed a nigger tho.

Right there, the mindset is crystallized.  Black people weren't even seen as human.  And by seeing/reading it, your reaction is meant to be "That ain't right".  "Slave" Jim is the smartest person in the book.  He's the HERO of the book.  The BLACK guy is played as better, smarter and more caring than anyone else in the book.  Before it became a trope that Spike Lee named "The Magic Negro", Twain did something groundbreaking. 

And I suggest that the people planning this new edition don't get that.  Or more correctly, fear that OTHER people won't get that.  It's a common tack to take; "I'm not offended by this thing, but I'm speaking up for the others who ARE, but can't or won't speak out."

And to a degree, they're right, but only because they don't try to "get it".  With no examples that I can think of, there has never been a protest about Huck Finn or any other literary (or filmic) work  by people who have actually read or seen it.  They are almost from people who hear about said work, assume they know what they're about, and go from there. 

Context is the pot in which all the ingredients mix and form a whole.  Most people never get to the pot, because they fly off the handle.


  1. You've summed up this debate beautifully: "Context is the pot in which all the ingredients mix and form a whole. Most people never get to the pot, because they fly off the handle." Too many people have a bad habit of not reading or listening attentively; they just let their gaze fall on the most inflammatory words and let their rhetoric run wild. Great job!

  2. Dear God please save me from the people who want to save me!

    There is also the classic adage about a certain road which is paved with good intentions. I came from a background where books were presented to children "as is" (at least for the most part. I didn't know about Salinger and James Joyce and Metalious until I was somewhat older). Innocent that I was (and so less complicated the times), I encountered the word "nigger" on a regular basis. Not only in Twain and Harper Lee, but in things such as the original Bobbsey Twins books.

    The point I am attempting to make is that we cannot improve the world by padding its sharp corners and averting our eyes from unpleasantness. Rather, we struggle to grow into a maturity where the only offense lies in deeds, rather than in words.

    Putting it less loftily: it's ridiculous to expurgate novels for the benefit of kids who doubtless hear far greater filth on a regular basis from their peer group.

    And I know I'm rambling, and I heartily apologize. Long time acquaintences know full well my views on censorship, which I put in the same category as book burning. People might argue that there's a difference, but I can't help it. I smell smoke!

  3. Mark Twain himself on censorship:

    "Censorship is like telling an adult he can't eat a steak because a baby can't chew it"

  4. And the sad thing is, Twain's not alive to defend himself on this.

    I, on the other hand, am still up and kicking. I'm hardly in Twain's tree, but here's a bit of a warning to self-proclaimed Defenders Of Innocent Minds out there. I'm a writer. You touch a syllable, you lose a finger.

    No, retract that. Let's put it this way. You touch a syllable, first make absolutely certain you've produced all the children you want.

  5. Michael, Vinnie, you both make excellent points! It's about time the world's well-meaning PC busybodies stopped trying to water down every little thing. It's kind of the intellectual equivalent of all those antiseptic products; studies show that kids who aren't sanitized within an inch of their lives become stronger and healthier because they build up resistance to germs. Well, people need to build up resistance to life's slings and arrows and harsh realities, too, and they'll be all the better for it in the long run.