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Why censoring Mark Twain is an assault on art and education

Few things rile me up enough that I talk aloud to the radio while alone in my car, but last Wednesday, when I heard the news about an Alabama-based company’s plans to publish a “new,” censored edition of Mark Twain’s classic novels—Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn—I couldn’t refrain from speaking my mind to the broadcasters on the other end of the airways. “Seriously? One hundred years after his death, Mark Twain is rolling over in his grave,” was all I could think.

The edited books are the project of Professor Alan Gribbon, who is replacing the n-word with that of slave and removing all appearances of the term injun in an attempt to make the novels less offensive. While Gribbon’s motivation — to see more schools teaching and more children reading these classic books — is noble, his method is a slap in the face to literature and art and a cheapening of the education system.

Mark Twain was one of the first to employ the use of local vernacular and slang in his writings, and with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he paved the way for similar works that would follow, all while portraying a culture, a way of life, and a slice of our country’s history. He chose his words carefully, and he had a reason for using them. Twain didn’t just throw in the n-word to be offense or see how quickly he could get his works on the banned books list, he used  it intentionally because it said something about the era his stories are set in and the attitudes of his characters—something that slave just can’t say.

Stripping Twain’s novels of the n-word in an attempt to make them less offensive is equivalent to painting clothes on replicas of art from the Sistine chapel in an attempt to avoid scenes of nudity — once you’ve messed with the art you really can’t call it a work of Michel Angelo anymore, can you? And I’m sorry, but if I find myself reading about Indian Joe, rather than Injun Joe, I’m no longer reading Tom Sawyer. Twain’s language is an integral part of his characters. And, it’s an integral part of the story he’s trying to tell — a story that I think kids would benefit from reading, in its holistic entirety.

It get that the n-word is offensive. And I agree with those who believe that it should not be liberally thrown into the hands of our youth. But I don’t think that scrubbing it out of classic novels is the answer. We can’t scrub it out of history, and we can’t scrub it out of existence. It may be a dark part of our past and an unpleasant — though thankfully less frequent — occurrence in our present, but it’s still there. Our kids are eventually going to encounter it (whether they read Mark Twain or not), and the way we deal with it today will determine their attitudes toward it in the future.

Again, I’m not suggesting that we hand our children Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn and allow them to interpret his use of language on their own — from their limited knowledge of culture and history. On the contrary, I’d like to see us using these novels and their use of the highly offensive n-word as an educational tool. As parents, educators, and individuals who have influence in children’s lives, let’s sit down with our kids and talk about what they’re reading. Let’s discuss the n-word and help them understand what it meant in the mid-1800s, what it means today, and why Mark Twain used it when portraying life along the Mississippi River. Who knows, it might just lead to open conversation about race, the history of African Americans in our country, and the tension and struggles that Huckleberry Finn feels as he befriends a man for whom others have so much hate. Twain makes an important point with his use of the n-word, and as I’ve already suggested, slave simply doesn’t mean the same thing. The two words have different connotations and evoke different feelings. If our children are going to learn from history, they need to understand that.

I know one could argue Gibbon and his publishers have a right to do whatever they please and if we don’t like it, we can go on reading our classic editions of Twain. And in some respects, that may be true. What I’m reacting to, however is the fact they’re tampering with art that was not theirs to begin with, and in doing so, they’re diluting the message and doing our children a gross disservice. And that’s what I find truly offensive.

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Written by liferenewed

January 11, 2011 at 5:15 am

Posted in Books

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