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As a special treat today, Stacy Stephens (aka [info]msstacy13*), winner of last year's Meager Puddle of Limelight Award for Best Opening Line, stops by to share, what I think is, an interesting take on the recent controversy surrounding an edited-to-remove-a-certain-word edition of a well-known book.
 

Was anyone hurt?
No, Ma'am, just killed the word "nigger."
by Stacy Stephens

Recently, there’s been quite a bit of discussion about a new edition of Huckleberry Finn, intended for Middle-School and High School students, in which the word “nigger” has been replaced by the word “slave” throughout the text.  Some people seem intrigued by the fact that I seem to be the only writer who thinks this edition is actually a good idea. 

While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, this goes well beyond simply being my opinion.  Your local school district could consider using this text.  If they do, you could oppose or support that decision.  I would like you to support it; I would like you to understand why I feel that way. 

Let me begin by saying that in 2005, I wrote a short (53,000 word) novel set in Kentucky and Alabama during the 1850s.  Before I began writing, I read two volumes of historical slave narratives, as well as the transcripts of statements of former slaves recorded during the 1930s.  I also read other works from the period, and studied laws regarding slavery at that time, which actually varied from state-to-state.  So, in regard to being aware of what the word “nigger” meant at the time Mark Twain wrote his book, only someone who majored in 19th Century American History, or 19th Century American Literature, could be better informed than I am.

Further, I majored in Secondary Education Language Arts.  So, with the possible exception of a published author writing for the Middle-School or High School markets, or another Education Major, I have a clearer idea of what is or is not appropriate for that age group.

Finally, I was born in the same neighborhood where Malcolm X was born, and spent most of my childhood in the same places.  I attended an otherwise all-black elementary school.  There are very few white people whose understanding of the word “nigger” is as profound and as comprehensive as mine.

Another essential consideration in this discussion is the fact that Huckleberry Finn is out of copyright.  It was originally published before 1923, and the author has been dead for more than seventy years.  The work is in the public domain, and anyone can now publish a new edition of it, making any changes they wish.  That’s not censorship, it’s intellectual freedom.  There have been several editions published in which “nigger” is replaced with “n-----” and in which nineteenth century colloquialisms have been replaced with modern figures of speech, and in which dialect is replaced with standard English.  No one complained about any of these, and we must wonder why the n-word is so highly regarded by so many people.  Why does it merit a degree of protection not afforded to other words expunged from the same book?  Why does it alone prompt so great an outcry?

My impression is that this is because it is only the n-word whose removal threatens white privilege.  You see, in the United States, white people have the privilege of deciding when race will be an issue, and when it will be discussed.  Replacing the n-word with “slave” makes it possible to read and discuss the book without the necessity of discussing why Twain chose to use the n-word, or discussing what it meant then in comparison or contrast to what it means now.  All these things are worthy of discussion, and can be discussed whether Jim is identified as a slave or a nigger.  However, if he is identified as a nigger, these discussions cannot be deferred.  They must be undertaken in any reading of the original text.  Thus, replacing “nigger” with “slave” deprives white society of an opportunity to determine when and where race will be discussed.  It deprives white society of rendering lip service to racial harmony in order to preclude a meaningful discussion of it in a meaningful context.  And because of the insidious nature of institutional and structural racism, very few white people can even perceive this, let alone begin to comprehend it. 

One might argue that removing the n-word softens the impact of what Twain intended to convey, but he was not so poor a writer that he needed to use a single word two hundred times in order to convey an idea, or impressions of the idea.  Nor is it a matter of sanitizing an author's work for politically correct purposes.  If the n-word is not present in the reading of the novel, discussions of the novel will be limited to the novel and what it presents, rather than feelings associated with the n-word.  Whether we call Jim a nigger, a slave, or a lorax, nothing changes.  His relationship with Huck or with the reader is not defined by his being a "nigger," much as white people would like to believe it is, and replacing the n-word becomes a case of secondary intelligence; of truly understanding what's expressed in a highly charged word by neutralizing the word itself and studying only the impact it creates.

       
 


Stacy Stephens was born in Omaha's Near North Side, spending much of her early childhood in the same neighborhood where Malcolm X had spent his. However, she spent her adolescence in Gerald Ford's old neighborhood, her family having moved out of the aptly misnomered Pleasant View Housing Project.

Like Henry Fonda, she graduated from Omaha's Central High School, where she attained the rank of Cadet Corporal in Army JROTC, and got good grades in the classes she liked. During and after High School, she worked a number of food service and telemarketing jobs, finally settling into a retail position at a locally owned pharmacy, ultimately becoming manager of retail merchandise, beverage alcohol, and over-the-counter pharmaceutical products before marrying, having a child, and divorcing.

While raising that child, she attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where she was elected to Student Senate three consecutive years, made Dean's List twice, and was selected for membership in Omicron Delta Kappa. She majored in Secondary Education Language Arts, graduating with a 3.08 GPA. Her formal writing classes included Journalism as well as Poetry and Fiction Studio.


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Comments

( 71 comments — Leave a comment )
msstacy13
Jan. 25th, 2011 12:46 pm (UTC)
Thank you.

I hope we get some informed and enlightening discussion.
:)
bondo_ba
Jan. 25th, 2011 01:06 pm (UTC)
You know what I think about mutilating any book in this way (if a word was used 200 times, then it must be important...), so I'll not repeat that here, but focus on what you say above.

You say:

"Nor is it a matter of sanitizing an author's work for politically correct purposes."

But then you go on to talk about the "privilege" and insiduous nature of race privilege, which is where the PC discussion has moved. Most people do not accept critical race theory as even remotely correct (including myself, and I wouldn't be considered white in the US), but more of a counter-productive (in that it turns off otherwise supportive people) overshooting of a worthy goal.

jongibbs
Jan. 25th, 2011 01:11 pm (UTC)
...if a word was used 200 times, then it must be important...

Unless they're all on the same page, in which case, some serious editing is called for ;)
(no subject) - bondo_ba - Jan. 25th, 2011 01:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(Anonymous)
Jan. 25th, 2011 01:06 pm (UTC)
Interesting. What then is going to be the way to differentiate the white slaves that were transported to America as indentured prisoners for the term of their punishment? These people were sold to the highest bidders for meanial tasks. Should the black slaves be called African American slaves and the white slaves British convict slaves?

And as long as books must be politically correct, despite the time frame in which they were written, someone ought to go out and censor all those books with the words Red Indian, or Indian in them and get them replaced with tribesman/woman of the First Nations. Oh, and what about Othello? Someone ought to go censor that.
darkspires
Jan. 25th, 2011 01:09 pm (UTC)
Sorry, that was me. I didn't noticed I had been logged out for some weird reason. Think it must have been done by a recent scan. Sigh. Anyhow, I am Anonymous by accident.
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tchernabyelo
Jan. 25th, 2011 01:46 pm (UTC)
You spend a lot of time establishing why you are better qualified than anyone else to understand the meaning of, and ramifications of the use of, the word "nigger".

From an intellectual standpoint, you may well be correct, but from an emotional standpoint, I'm not at all convinced.

I understand the aims of the original producer of the book - that the book is currently shunned at certain age levels because of the language, and that these changes open it up once more - but again, I am yet to be convinced. I think it's long past time America confronted its past properly; there is still deep-rooted racism in this country (do we really think there would be a widespread movement demanding the president show his birth certificate, or a widespread belief that he is secretly/really a Mulsim, if he were white?) and I don't think white-washing (ho ho) the past by eliding its language helps in facing that.
msstacy13
Jan. 25th, 2011 02:05 pm (UTC)
Your observation about intellect/emotion is spot on.
Because this is a highly emotionally issue,
I tried to keep my presentation devoid of my own, very deep, emotions.

In this instance, I think replacing the n-word makes it possible to,
as you say, confront our past properly.
wendigomountain
Jan. 25th, 2011 01:56 pm (UTC)
I don't know. Maybe it was my early reading of Orwell's 1984 that made me leery of changing words in things that don't suit our tastes at the time. Huck Finn is an important artifact of a time when, holy shit!, people owned other people and treated them as subhuman. Diminishing the context of Huck's world by changing the word, diminishes the importance and the effect of what the book accomplished. If Mark Twain had wanted to use a euphemism, he would have done so. The juxtaposition IS important. Especially now.

Changing the word doesn't make it go away. But it also enables us to pretend it wasn't that bad back then. Aunt Jemima was making pancakes and Uncle Ben was cooking rice. It's the mass-produced Sesame Street version of the American Story. Without all that dehumanization that allowed policemen to turn firehoses and dogs onto peaceful protesters in the 1960's or black men to be lynched for talking to white women. Changing the word takes the edge off our history as Americans and supplants the ugliness with easier to palate "truths."
msstacy13
Jan. 25th, 2011 02:11 pm (UTC)
But even if you replace "nigger" with "lorax"
Pap's veiws don't change.
He doesn't suddenly love loraxes instead of hating niggers.
The book doesn't change along with the word.
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wendigomountain
Jan. 25th, 2011 01:59 pm (UTC)
Let's shift the context a little bit too. Take Mel Brook's movie, Blazing Saddles. Now, change the N word to slave. It just doesn't have the same impact or social ramifications, does it?
msstacy13
Jan. 25th, 2011 02:08 pm (UTC)
But I wouldn't endorse making that change.

It may be that this is a case in which the exception proves the rule.
(Deleted comment)
msstacy13
Jan. 25th, 2011 02:13 pm (UTC)
Your concern is valid,
and my only possible argument in that direction
would be to suggest that this case may be the exception which proves the rule.
And, yes, I'm fairly certain this edition includes and introduction
explaining the changes, and notes that it is a revised edition.
bogwitch64
Jan. 25th, 2011 02:53 pm (UTC)
Stacy makes some excellent points, as do other posters here. I do my best to always see both sides of a debate, and that sometimes leads to being unable to choose a side. This is one of those times where I'm VERY close to being unable to decide. The word detracts from the discussion about the book, because it often becomes THE discussion about the book. Is it a bad thing to discuss? Absolutely not--but I do see it being a hindrance to studying THE WHOLE STORY when it becomes about a single aspect of it.

That being said, I'm afraid I'd still be against it if it came to a vote. Taking away that discussion, no matter how well-intentioned, lessens the impact of the book as a whole. It has become part of the discussion because it is an important one, one that can't be overlooked. I don't think it should be.

Great arguments, Stacy. Color me wishy-washy!
msstacy13
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:09 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
As I say, it's possible that I'm mistaken,
so it's good that whatever your decision,
if you do finally decide,
you arrived at that decision after evaluating my perspective.

My own feeling is that it would be virtually impossible,
even among adults, to discuss the original version
without invoking the president's birth certifiate
and a zillion other things.
Among middle shool and high school students?

*blink*
wendigomountain
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:34 pm (UTC)
One thing I don't get about this debate is why Mark Twain has to be toned down but Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk can be as inflammatory and controversial as they want to be? Is it because we want Twain to become a grandfather of American Letters who everyone should like who never said a sour word to anyone?

Back in his day, Twain was our Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis. Just look what he said about religion, race, etc. He was the man who wrote with a pen dipped in Hell. But now we've broken his teeth out and made him an old bear in a pit against newer, meaner dogs.

This is the man who wrote about wanting to see the steamships crash into bridges, spilling the onlookers into the river. When we change his words, we also lose a little of what we know of the author. And I don't think any writer here would want to see that happen to any of their own works.
msstacy13
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:50 pm (UTC)
Are either of them being taught in Middle School and/or High School?

And, yes, something is lost,
but quite a bit more is lost when the n-word itself
becomes the only thing discussed in class,
or if the book isn't even taught
because no teacher in her right mind wants to spend
forty-five minutes talking about the n-word five days a week.
(no subject) - mary_j_59 - Jan. 26th, 2011 10:21 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Jan. 26th, 2011 11:52 am (UTC) - Expand
smeddley
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:40 pm (UTC)
I have to say I'm against it on the principle of 'whose right is it to change another author's work' (with the exception of true parody, which is a whole other kettle of fish). I know that if I wrote something, I'd like it to remain unchanged, even after I died.

Also, the word 'slave' in no way has the same impact, to me, as 'nigger'. Partly because it doesn't, in my mind, make a person less than a person the way the word 'nigger' does. And perhaps that's because the word 'slave' is used in a lot of modern literature in a very different way, a way that conveys a consensual agreeement... if you know what I mean.

Therefore, to me, changing the word would very much lessen the impact of the book, the characters, I think.
msstacy13
Jan. 25th, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC)
True, but whatever impact the book might have
won't be made if the discussion can't get past one word,
of if the book is never even read.
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melissajm
Jan. 25th, 2011 07:41 pm (UTC)
What puzzles me is why people would rather alter a book written for adults than question whether or not it's appropriate to teach it at certain grade levels.

Mark Twain wrote a novel, not an English text.

I hate that word. It makes me uncomfortable. (as does "cripple.") I think we SHOULD feel uncomfortable when we read about slavery, and not try to diminish how wrong it was.
msstacy13
Jan. 25th, 2011 07:49 pm (UTC)
Also a good point,
although I don't think changing the word
actually diminishes anything.
(no subject) - melissajm - Jan. 25th, 2011 08:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Jan. 25th, 2011 08:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
paulwoodlin
Jan. 25th, 2011 08:49 pm (UTC)
Personally, I found this essay confusing.

"My impression is that this is because it is only the n-word whose removal threatens white privilege." Okay, what I get from this is that if white people decide to remove the n-word, it is because they don't want to discuss the n-word and the white privilege of owning most of the publishing houses allows us to get away with white washing history. (And yes, white washing is one of my favorite puns on topics like this.) Thus this editing of a historical text is done so white people can be more comfortable, and therefore is racist, so we shouldn't do it.

But then...

"Whether we call Jim a nigger, a slave, or a lorax, nothing changes. His relationship with Huck or with the reader is not defined by his being a "nigger," much as white people would like to believe it is, and replacing the n-word becomes a case of secondary intelligence; of truly understanding what's expressed in a highly charged word by neutralizing the word itself and studying only the impact it creates."

So it doesn't matter if we do it or not, because it is still the story of a relationship between an enslaved man and a free boy.

In the end, I come away from this essay still holding my original opinion, that if you want a kids' book it should be rewritten from stratch for kids at a kids' level, and when they get older they can read the untouched original.
msstacy13
Jan. 25th, 2011 09:17 pm (UTC)
Hmm.

Like I said to someone else earlier,
since it's possible I could be wrong,
it may be just as well that you've thought it through once more,
and still feel the same.

And you may be quite right about letting wait until college.
(Anonymous)
Jan. 25th, 2011 11:11 pm (UTC)
I think the word does make a difference, especially in this book. If classes spend a lot of time debating the n-word when they read this book, I don't see that as a distraction from the book's points, but a discussion that goes to the very heart of the book's points. Replacing it with lorax isn't the same at all--because what Jim is called is integral to his place in the book's world. Often, literature should unsettle us, and embarrass us with our own ugliness. That's one of the many things it does.
msstacy13
Jan. 26th, 2011 06:48 am (UTC)
Among adults, certainly.
(no subject) - mary_j_59 - Jan. 26th, 2011 10:30 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Jan. 26th, 2011 11:54 am (UTC) - Expand
msstacy13
Jan. 26th, 2011 07:58 am (UTC)
Well, no one's opinion has changed,
but I did at least get a handful of writers thinking about it,
right?
bogwitch64
Jan. 27th, 2011 01:39 am (UTC)
Thinking is ALWAYS a good thing.
( 71 comments — Leave a comment )

Things What I Wrote and Other Stuff

No longer in print but there are still some copies floating around out there


No longer in print but there are still some copies floating around out there















 











THE MEAGER PUDDLE OF LIMELIGHT AWARDS


Books by my writer friends - compressed

NJ Writing groups - compressed

NJ writing conference - compressed

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