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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 6 Jan 2011 11:22:07 -0500
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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"Carl J. Chimi" <[log in to unmask]>
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I am not a Mark Twain scholar, and so probably have no voice in this
discussion.  Heck, I didn't even know when I was young that one COULD be a
Mark Twain scholar, sadly. But I have been reading almost everything I could
find about or by Mark Twain since I was perhaps seven or eight years old,
which makes it about 50 years now.  I wouldn't pretend to have the
credentials of people who deign to change an author's words.  But I'd like
to make two points:

1. "Slave" in no way equals "Nigger".  Others here have made that point, but
it has to be made repeatedly, in my opinion.  Slave is a station in life, a
condition, a legal (usually) status.  It can be forced on a person, it can
be entered at birth, it can sometimes be ended, either through escape or
manumission.  My description here is clinical, but in fact I find the idea
of slavery abhorrent.  "Nigger" is a whole different thing.  In origin, it
is simply a reference to skin color, but its connotations have developed way
beyond its origins.  In Twain's time (the meaning that is actually relevant
when discussing HF), as far as I know, it was always used as a racist
pejorative, even when, as with Huck, that usage is unconscious or
unintended.  Its meaning is to degrade another human being simply for the
color of his skin.  The color of one's skin is not, by and large,
changeable.  It is a condition of being that one is born with and that one
lives with until death.  One cannot escape it.  And, if other people hate
you for it, you cannot escape their hatred, except by somehow removing the
hatred from them.  And THAT, to me, is the reason it is a bad idea to change
that word to another word that implies something very different.  Not all
blacks were slaves in antebellum times, but all blacks, to a racist like Pap
Finn, were "niggers".  And a drunken sot like Finn could use that word to
make himself feel superior to the most kind, gentle, educated, and
cultivated black man in the country.  Only the word "nigger" conveys that
shattering, despicable truth about racism.  I won't pretend to know what
Clemens had in his mind when he wrote HF, but I know what I have in my mind
when I read it, and the word "slave" does not work.  Huck's moment of
epiphany doesn't work if Jim is only a "slave".  Huck would not decide to go
to hell for a "slave"; he would be afraid of going to jail.  But to break
the psychic bonds of racism, Huck has to realize that he would go to HELL
for a "nigger"; it's the realization that the word "nigger" is wrong when
applied to a PERSON that brings Huck to his moment of truth.

Simply put, as much meaning as the word "slave" carries with it, it does not
carry anywhere near the same depth of meaning as the word "nigger".  It's a
bad idea, in my opinion, to make that change and then to pretend that school
children are reading "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn".  They're not.

2.  If the issue is that teachers do not know how to teach the real HF, then
why do they not either find out HOW to teach it from the many, many teachers
who do, or else stop teaching it?  If it is thought that high school kids
are not ready for the REAL issues the book brings up, then why not hold off
on teaching it until a later point in the education process?  Why feed
pablumized literature to children?  Why not simply avoid the whole issue and
teach other works that don't provide the same challenges?

Seriously, I think that any child who has reached high school is old enough
to confront and successfully deal with the issues found in HF.  There is no
child in America who has not heard the word "nigger" hundreds of times by
that point, except the absolute most sheltered.  There are children who have
been taught that it a bad word (as I was very young), and there are children
who have not been taught that.  There are children, black and white, who use
it as an affectionate term for their friends.  It will not hurt any child to
learn the history of that word.  It will not surprise any child, because
children in America are more aware of, and more sensitive to, the racist
tendencies of this nation than their parents realize.  In my opinion, it
makes more sense to talk openly about those tendencies EARLY, rather than
late, before they have become hardened aspects of the personality and the
culture.  The first time I can remember ever seeing a black person was when
I was about three.  He was a man sitting in the back seat of a Department of
Public Works truck in front of my house.  I sat on a hydrant and looked at
him and then ran into the house and shouted to my mother, "Ma!  There's a
nigger in that truck!"  How I knew that word I will never know.  But my
mother's reaction I will never forget.  She told me in no uncertain terms
never to use that word, that it would hurt people when I used it, and it
hurt her to hear me say it.  She said that, as Italian-Americans, we would
also hear words that hurt us.  She told me (this was about 1956) that the
proper way to refer to that man was as a colored man.  I then went back out
to look at the man as he worked with his colleagues.  I sat back on the
hydrant, and got my very first bee sting on my bottom for my pains.  Even
then, it seems, I was an ass, and that bee knew it.

I think if a three-year-old can get a lesson from his mother, a lady who
never went to high school, about racism and how it hurts people - and retain
that lesson - any high school kid can do the same, especially when guided by
an educated, sensitive teacher.

One final point, what does it mean that this edition of the work is being
published by an outfit called "NewSouth"?  I honestly don't know, but I do
know that it jars me every time I hear or read that.


Who wishes he were a Mark Twain scholar, and appreciates the opportunity
through this list to commune with those who are.