Huck Finn, the Tea Party, and Whitewashing History

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.


5 comments on “Huck Finn, the Tea Party, and Whitewashing History

  1. Well put, John. It always boggles my mind when people/institutions/etc. decide to sugarcoat anything–especially American history. You don’t have to dwell on it, but don’t completely ignore it.

    On a semi-related note, it seems the Huff Post got a little over-huffy with Roger Ebert for his use of the word “nigger.”


    • That’s an interesting article. Though they are tangential to Ebert’s main point, I got a kick out of these lines: “My love of Huckleberry Finn is great. I would sacrifice every video game in existence rather than lose Mark Twain’s novel.” I also love that he used the word kerfuffle. That word is not used often enough.

  2. Empires thrive on the rewriting of history, and in its short history the United States has shown itself to be adept at this exercise. The problem with the word nigger is not that it’s an ugly spot in our history we don’t want to look at. The problem is that it is a reminder that a previous injustice was in large measure remedied (and that only a generation ago), and thus there is power in the populace to continue effecting change within the structures of empire. Such reminders are dangerous in the extreme and to be avoided at all cost.

    From the days that slavery was abolished, the word nigger was used to keep ideological chains on so many black Americans who either transitioned to the semi-slavery of sharecropping or migrated to the cities of the North. Physical violence was paired with these verbal chains in order to communicate one message: “You may have been freed from slavery, but don’t think that EVERYTHING is going to change. White people are still in charge.”

    The battle over vocabulary is a battle over imagination. If a country where the word nigger could not be used with impunity was imagined and then realized, why not imagine a country where Latino students can critically examine history from a minority perspective without being accused of sedition?

    Such imagination cannot be given room to grow, so the solution is to get rid words and stories that serve as touchstones of communal memory, which in turn is the foundation for communal transformation. The best way to be rid of such words and stories is to co-opt them (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) or delete them. Goodbye, “nigger” – you belong to the past, not the future.

    • Ramón,

      Thank you for your incisive response. The IQ of this blog just jumped about 50 points.

      I know you, and so I know what you wrote here flows from your own experience and wisdom and long hours of thinking and talking deeply about these issues – but since you are out of the country (sigh) and I can’t pick your brain over a couple beers at the Moon & Sixpence, are there any books that you’ve read on this topic that you would recommend?

      Thanks again, Ramón, for giving me so much more to think about.


      • Thanks for the comment, John. It’s getting harder and harder to piece together the origins of ideas that spring out of the constant rumination in my head, so I’m afraid I don’t have much of a list to offer you.

        In regards to regime opposition to imagination, I’d recommend William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist, Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination, and Brian J. Walsh & Sylvia C. Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed. Their citations are thorough, and you can follow the trail to the more explicitly political writings of Chomsky, Foucault, etc.

        I can’t think of anything specifically on the use of the word nigger, but I always recommend that people read W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk and The Autobiography of Malcolm X for two very different perspectives on the construction of race in American society, which of course includes the use of the word nigger.

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