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a new edition of Huckleberry Finn, intended for Middle-School and High School students, in which the word “nigger” has been replaced by the word “slave” throughout the text.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.