I have vacillated a little over the years regarding what I thought about "the 'N' word" being used in Twain's magnum opus, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
For the most part, I have been for remaining true to the original (rather than replacing it with the word "slave" or something else), and educating people about why the word was used by Twain in that book, and how common it was then, etc.
In the same way, I don't like it when historical movies/tv shows have people using "the 'F' word" and other anachronisms when that word was rarely, if ever, used in the time and place being depicted. The "excuse" the apologists of such usage give is that if they were to be completely precise as to how people spoke back then, their vitriol would not be conveyed, but rather sound like something grandma might say when she dropped her thimble. I think for the most part it's preferable to either give the audience the benefit of the doubt or educate them, so that they understand the import and impact of what is being said, even if it sounds quaint or even comical to some today.
However, something occurred yesterday that gave me pause regarding "the 'N' word" in Huck Finn:
I have a very good friend who is "black." We have been discussing literature (via the mail) a litt/e lately. He recently read "Huck Finn" (he liked it a lot). After a little back and forth about it, this is what he had to say in yesterday's letter:
///As for Mark Twain, I agree. He DOES NOT promote slavery. I think people have more of an issue with the "n" word. I'm all for historical accuracy in literature and in fiction but the issue is, should it be read in schools?
If I was the only black kid in a white classroom could you imagine the embarrassment I'd feel if we read the "n" word over and over and over again? Or worse, what they would call me at recess?///
That was an epiphany for me. Perhaps this is a case where "the perfect is the enemy of the good," as there are probably two possibilities for Huck Finn being available in the classroom henceforth:
1) The "N" word is replaced with something else, maybe "slave" or "negro" (perhaps with an explanation in the foreword and/or verbally by the teacher at the start of the class reading it as to why "the 'N' word" was used in the original, and why it is being replaced)2) It's not available at all
Perhaps replacing the problematic word may, after all, be more in the spirit of what Twain wrote. In this instance, although it would not be a completely precise version of the book (if "the 'N' word" were expurgated), it would be the kind thing to do, considering how it might affect some of the hearers/readers.
- B. Clay Shannon