Yesterday I posted something on our Twitter account about an Auburn University professor who has produced a bowdlerized version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn by replacing all uses of the word “nigger” with the word “slave.” According to the New York Times, Professor Gribben “worried that the N-word had resulted in the novel falling off reading lists,” and he hoped his edition “would be welcomed by schoolteachers and university instructors who wanted to spare ‘the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol.'”
Professor Gribben’s effort to sugarcoat the classic work to fit the modern palate is well-intentioned but nevertheless deeply disquieting. For one thing, the words “nigger” and “slave” are not synonymous. For another, Professor Gribben’s book may get Huck and Jim on more reading lists, but it will deprive teachers of a valuable teaching tool. As the author Jane Smiley said in an online debate about the new book: “Personally, if I were to teach Huck Finn, I would want my students to be shocked and repelled by the use of the n-word, and I would then want to discuss the issues around that word, and how those issues are represented in the novel. Twain the author is by no means unaware of how Huck’s use of that word increasingly misrepresents his feelings toward Jim, and so the word is intentionally loaded. ‘Slave’ doesn’t carry the same shock value, and so it tones down what Twain is getting at.”
This kind of selective censorship is alive-and-well beyond the ivory towers of the liberal academic elite. Newly empowered House Republicans made a great to-do earlier this week about reading the Constitution on the floor of the House. It was, they said, the first time the entire Constitution had been recited in Congress. Well, not quite. According to the Washington Post, Republicans “skipped several passages that no longer apply, including those that condoned slavery…”
Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), who led the floor proceedings, defended the decision to choose an edited version of the document. He said he consulted the Congressional Research Service, among other sources, and that he was not trying to protect the framers of the Constitution.
“The intent was to read the Constitution as it currently operates,” Goodlatte said in an interview.
The top-ranking African American in the House of Representatives, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, refused to participate in the reading, saying that omitting the slavery clauses amounted to “revisionist history.”
Let me sidestep the irony of conservative Republicans, strict constructionists all, deigning to treat the Constitution as a living document, as well as the obvious cheap shot about Tea Party kingmakers’ well-documented preference for revisionist history. What concerns me here – and concerns me most – is how sanitizing our founding document, not to mention our great books, whitewashes our country’s complex racial history. “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again,” George Santayana famously said (in an aphorism that is inscribed in a plaque at the Auschwitz concentration camp).
Its not enough for history to be merely noticed, shooed away like a pesky fly threatening to ruin our picnic. History is not something from which we should be “spared.” Sometimes we have to embrace our dark history until our hearts break, as of course they must if we want a future brighter than our past – if we would be saved.