Dear Friends, I am certainly no literary scholar or educator, but I
do know a bit about slavery in the upper Mississippi Valley from 1840
until 1865. If one is to understand slavery, one must understand the
dehumanization of the enslaved by the master class. The word nigger
certainly does not equal the word slave. Slavery ended in Missouri in
January of 1865. The niggerization of a substantial portion of the
population continued for another sad century denying people social,
political, educational, and economic opportunities. The word nigger
still floats around Northeast Missouri. "Nigger work" is used by the
rougher sort of white people today to indicate hard dirty work.
Asbestos siding made to look like bricks is referred to as "nigger
brick." The latter has roots in a whole class of cheap goods
manufactured and sold to the master class for use by slaves. Of
course, it is still used by some to refer to African Americans. Though
today most whites do not use these terms in the presence of non-
whites, I still hear them from my clients from time to time.
I think that Twain understood exactly what he meant when he
used the word "nigger." It certainly entailed far more than "slave."
A slave could be freed, but the person remained a nigger. Surely we
have progressed far enough that our students can discuss this
concept. It is not necessary to whitewash the institution and clean
up Twain. I understand the power of the word and I still wince when I
hear it. However, it always strikes me as ironic when I hear my older
non-white daughter use the word with her boyfriend (a practice she did
not have until she moved to New York.) I think Gribben is taking a
very wrong and misleading step with his sanitized Huck.