U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Teaching race, learning history

The new edition of Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry Finn, edited by Alan Gribben of Auburn University, which has replaced over two hundred uses of the n-word with “slave” has caused conversation about race all over my podcasts, facebook, and email. As usual when Americans try to discuss our racial past and present, there’s a lot of awkwardness and dancing. Some reporters very consciously avoided “nigger,” preferring “the n-word.” Kurt Andersen on Studio 360 expressed horror and repulsion at this transformation of an American classic and very purposefully used “nigger” without flinching. He also provided a fairly nuanced discussion–an interview with the editor, a discussion of the historical ramifications of the book then and now, and also a story about a black child reading a book like this.

And yet I haven’t read Twain’s original or the “sanitized” (PG?) version. Have any of you? Nor do I have children and so I don’t have to think about what a certain age can and should be exposed to. By the time I get them, I tend to think college age students should learn everything that they can absorb and rarely soften the past for them. I do worry when (usually whites) students tend to start talking about blacks in the past solely as victims or when students cannot connect the violence of the past to today. Or even when students miss how much of the racial violence happened blatantly but also in a day to day way that made it mundane and expected, if not still evil. It’s easy to think the past was a totally different place, with much more evil people, if you miss the mundane.

Douglas Curt Lyons asks on H-Afro-Am why we can’t interrogate the use of the word instead of never even saying it. I want my next article (after I have turned my dissertation research into the different books it can become) to be about the development and eventual replacement of the word “negro.” In particular I’m curious about what kind of symbolic work the phrase “the Negro” did, making it seem as if all blacks had a singular voice, but also who used it, in what circumstances, and how it compared to other singular labels. Perhaps I am taking the less inflamatory route by ignore “Negro’s” more incendiary cousin?

On the Media plays an interesting replay of a story done by a second generation American of Sierra Leone descent, interviewing friends and strangers in New York City about the use of the “n word” (it was strictly outlawed in her house, but she has had to deal with it among hip hop fans).

A fantastic (and really, I mean this, all of you need to go read it) essay by a black professor meditating on teaching all white students and their reluctance to say the “n-word” in front of her, and whether or not she really wanted them to, is Emily Bernard’s “Teaching the N Word.” Seriously, go, read it. I’ll wait. Ok, a little snippet to whet your philsophy stone:

“IT’S NOT THAT I can’t say it, it’s that I don’t want to. I will not say it,”
Sarah says. She wears her copper red hair in a short, smart style that makes her
look older than her years. When she smiles I remember how young she is. She is
not smiling now. She looks indignant. She is indignant because I am insinuating
that there is a problem with the fact that no one in the class will say
“nigger.” Her indignation pleases me.

And then come back and watch what our contemporary Mark Twain, John Stewart, has to say:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Mark Twain Controversy
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

*Edited after Stephen’s comment.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “a central historical point. One that is patently obvious to a historian who has actually read Huckleberry Finn. It is set two decades after the end of slavery.”

    OK, I admit it’s been a while since I read the book. Or maybe I’m missing something subtle, since you then say that you haven’t read the book.

    But just to be clear: this is wrong. The novel is set during slavery. The basic plot of the book is Jim trying to get *out* of slavery.

    For that matter, Twain was clear about this. Look at the text of Huck Finn and you’ll see, after the notice & explanatory but before chapter one, this:
    SCENE: The Mississippi Valley
    TIME: Forty to Fifty Years Ago
    …the book was published in 1884, which would make the time 1834 – 1844.

  2. Nice post Lauren. You’ve never read Huck Finn? Next you’ll tell us you’ve never been to a baseball game or never eaten apple pie!

    I think the sanitized version of Huck Finn is an embarrassment–a caricature of hyper-PC academia. I read Huck Finn in fifth grade and remember feeling deep sympathy for Jim. In fact, more than any other book that I read as a child, I remember it shaping my earliest perspectives on slavery and racism. I also assigned Huck Finn when I taught ninth graders, and it had the same effect on many of my students. I will have my children read the original version as soon as they are able.

  3. Huck FInn was one of the few (maybe the only) 19th century text that I encountered as a child that dealt with questions of slavery and race. And it had a powerful (and positive) effect on me.

    I agree with Andrew: this edition is an embarrassment…though I think that it will itself be a fascinating case study in intellectual and cultural history.

  4. Ben,
    You mean anti-intellectual history, right? That is what this is, anti-intellectual. An editor taking the opportunity for rational thinking and discussion away from those who will read this text. It is one of the greatest failings of American education over my lifetime, the decline in critical thinking and rational discourse.

    What do you suppose it says about our postmodern education that there are people with PhDs in American humanities subjects who have not read one of the most important books of what was once the American literary cannon? I’ll bet if we were to poll the regular contributors and readers of this award winning blog about what great works they have and have not read we would find that there really is no agreed upon cannon anymore, which is both good and bad in my opinion.

  5. Anonymous,

    First of all, the editor of this edition is in no way “taking the opportunity for rational thinking and discussion away from those who will read this text.” That’s pure hyperbole. It’s sanitized, bowdlerized, it may indeed be a stupid idea, and it may well be cowardice in the face of something difficult to explain. but it’s not as thought he is making it impossible to read the original text. and, likely, any teacher/school district who’d use this edition would anyway, otherwise, not be taking advantage of the teaching moment in the way you seem to think best.

    Further, I’m going to just go out on a limb and suggest that there will obviously be more than one book that you could call “one of the most important books of what was once the American literary cannon” that any given individual with a PhD in, say, American literature, has not read. Who was it who wrote that essay a few years ago about the fine art of not having read books? you’re being unreasonable here.

    more generally, one of the smart things i’ve hear said about this version of Huck Finn has to do not with the suppression of “nigger,” but its replacement with “slave.” Of course the first makes people uncomfortable–but it seems to me more deeply problematic that we should all accept without question that the one is really only a sanitized version of the other.

  6. Lauren,

    I took up your dare and read the (too long) essay. My impressions follow:

    1. Wow. Dr. Blunt is hung up on power, authority, and credentials—or she thinks her students are—or she gives the impression that she is hung up on these things—or she purposed it as a theme of this essay. In any case, I wanted to stop reading after my impression of her tone deepened.

    2. The following observation felt ridiculous: “But my mind locks onto an image of my husband and Nate on the basketball court, two white men, covered in sweat, body to body, heads down, focused on the ball.” Why was this inserted? It feels oddly sexual.

    3. The whole essay felt more about power of cultural class than race.

    4. The intermittently reverse chronology of the essay made me dizzy.

    That’s it. I’d probably have more to say if the author had come to some clear conclusion. The lack of a conclusion is, I’m sure, precisely the point.

    – TL

  7. Tim–I have to say I feel like you and I read utterly different essays. I have to think about how to respond because I didn’t see any of what you saw in the essay.

    Race is incredibly bound up in cultural class. One of the ways that African Americans have historically “proven” their worth was to dress well and speak well. Blacks traveling by car would dress to the nines in order to show off their class if they were stopped by a police car. Class was one of the few ways they could hope to soften the discriminations thrown at them by race.

    Could you explain more what you mean by 1 and 3? 2 and 4 seem to be more stylistic problems which you and I can differ on.

    Why did this essay prompt such vehemence from you? Or am I reading emotion into your post that is not there?

  8. Lauren,

    My apologies. I didn’t mean to sound so hostile. Upon rereading, I can see how it seemed that way. But I had less emotion during and after reading than my comment suggests.

    It was a long essay, and I was a bit frustrated by the end because it was more autobiographical than didactic. I expected suggestions and/or tips on how to handle race/the n-word in class, but the point of the essay is that there are no easy ways to do it. Point taken. In sum, I shouldn’t have read it from 4:30 – 5 pm when I was itching to go home!

    Even so, I hold to the fact that power and class stood out for me more than anything. I say this for the reasons you cite. But I also felt a student manipulation that, well, didn’t seem to have a defined endpoint other than making them uncomfortable.

    I guess that’s it. I’m sorry for leaving a confusing first comment.

    – TL

  9. Mike,

    It’s harder for black Americans to prove that they have the legitimacy to teach something. There is a lot of skepticism about African Americans’ abilities, before and after affirmative action. I didn’t see that as tooting her own horn but an attempt to indicate her credentials.


    I can see why this article would have been confusing if you were looking for specific help. I prefer autobiography and nuance/complication, even though it doesn’t necessarily help me directly in my work. I liked the essay precisely because it was a black professor honestly struggling with how difficult it is to know whether to encourage a kind of academic distance from the word “nigger” or to encourage whites’ need to shy away from it or whites’ willingness to use it when not near a black person. I find a lot of the empathy and knowledge I have drawn about African American history and particularly the significance of race comes from reading autobiography and trying to understand what it is like for black people. Because sometimes black people have experiences I can never imagine having because they are black, even while we also share similar traits of humanity.

    I do appreciate that you both read something I had suggested. It always interests me how differently I think than most of the other bloggers on this board. I suppose that’s a good thing, since I often encourage diversity!

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