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I Understand That You Have Good Intentions

By | Think Pieces | January 4, 2011 | Comments ()


twain-jim.and.huck.jpg

Nigger.

Nigger. NIIIIIIIGGGGGGGGEERRR.

Niggerniggerniggernigger.

Ugly, word ain't it? Offensive. Disgusting. It's a throwback to a shameful history of slavery and genocide. Use it in my presence and the best you can hope for is that I allow you to crawl away instead of being carried out on a slab.

And it's a word I absolutely want it to stay in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Alan Gribben, PhD, professor of English and Philosophy at Auburn University--Montgomery and an expert in the work of Mark Twain, is working on a new edition of the classic Huckleberry Finn. He has decided to remove all 219 instances of the word "Nigger" in the this edition, as well as all uses of the word "Injun." Instead, he will use the words "Slave" and "Indian."

I guess the primary supporting character will be called "Slave Jim." That lacks a certain . . . oomph. It's kind of like "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a darn."

First, we have the issue of the appropriateness of completely remaking works of classic literature 130 years or so after the fact to make them align with modern sensibilities. It's not like I particularly love his liberal (ha-ha) use of this particular term, but Twain chose his words for a reason. He sought to reflect a particular time and place and place and sensibility. Pretending that the people along the Mississippi River in 1884 didn't bandy around the word "nigger" like it was a job is dishonest and a disservice to both Twain and the reader.

More to the point, and like it or not, "nigger" is crucial to the plot. "Nigger Jim" is Nigger Jim entirely to show that the other characters in the book hold him as a separate, lesser being, right? Huck's epiphany, when he decides that his brown-skinned buddy is "Jim" and not "Nigger Jim" is the climax of the book.

Huck's moral decision to overthrow Southern custom and help Jim escape, when he accepts that there is a universal law of humanity that trumps the laws of property, just doesn't have the power if he's been hanging out with "Slave Jim." "Slave" is a title. There have been slaves since time began. "Nigger" is an identity unique to the United States. Twain was up to something specific here and "Slave Jim" just doesn't get it done.

I say this as someone who does not love this particular book. If Gribben wants to be helpful, he should decipher some of Twain's heavy use of dialect so I can figure out what the hell is going on.

Discussions involving issues of race tend to get stupid in a hurry around here but before someone brings it up, I'm going to set the rules: If you are white, you can use the word "nigger" only if you are a literary genius whose works will remain important a century after your death. Everybody else has to find another word.

Jason Harris believes the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Which is why he doesn't have any.



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