Friday, January 21, 2011

Slave Jim or N-word Jim?

I really like  Tayari Jone's blog
She is the author of Leaving Atlanta and the forthcoming Silver Girl

Here is something she wrote recently for an op-ed piece--anyone care to comment:

Opinion: Scrubbing 'Huck Finn,' and Our History

Jan 5, 2011 – 4:40 PM
Tayari Jones
Special to AOL News

I, for one, have never endorsed the common use of the phrase "N-word" to replace the offensive racial epithet. For one, it reduces otherwise intelligent conversations about race to something that resembles the way adults spell out hot-button words so that they glide over the heads of innocent children. The recent scrubbing of the word from "Huckleberry Finn" in NewSouth's edition of Mark Twain's classic, replacing it with "slave," seems to be the next logical step in the well-intentioned effort to rid American English of problematic terms.

Cover of 'Huckleberry Finn' by Mark Twain.
"Huckleberry Finn" explores racism and friendship in a way that shows the complicated intersection of power and intimacy.
The editors of NewSouth say it's an effort to help Huckleberry Finn, which often has been banned, find its way back into classrooms. They argue that they are not censoring the novel, but updating it for 21st century sensibilities.

"Huckleberry Finn," almost always regarded as an American classic, is a story of an unlikely friendship between Huck, a white adolescent, and Jim, an enslaved black man. I find it peculiar that the concept of human chattel is not too harsh for young readers, but a six-letter word renders this work obscene.

The value of "Huckleberry Finn" is that it explores racism and friendship in a way that shows the complicated relationships between blacks and whites. Huck and Jim certainly care for each other, but at the same time it's true that Huck refers to his friend as "Nigger Jim."

This is a complicating dynamic that should not be omitted. In the hands of a skilled teacher, this can lead to a frank discussion that interrogates modern relationships. After that day in class, the well-worn "But some of my best friends are black!" will no longer seem to be an adequate defense against charges of racism.

Furthermore, prettying up the language also pretties up the historical record of antebellum life in the American South. If we are in a position in which schools cannot be honest about what African-Americans were called during slavery, what hope is there that students will ever be told the reality of what enslaved people experience?

The revisions to "Huckleberry Finn" have been described as "politically correct," but I disagree with this characterization. Political correctness is not about airbrushing history to allow us to remember our past in a way that more closely resembles our present. Though more honorable in intent, these changes are more in line with recent Virginia textbook scandal in which units of black soldiers were said to have fought for the Confederacy.

American history is a complex narrative that is by turns inspiring and shameful. If there are teachers and parents who would prefer that their children and students not to be exposed to the truth, that's their call. The solution is not to fight willful ignorance with willful misrepresentation.

I agree that "Huckleberry Finn" is an important novel, but if altering history is the cost of its inclusion in schools, then it's just not worth it.

Tayari Jones teaches at Rutgers-Newark University. Her new novel, "Silver Sparrow," will be published in May. this post can be found at:

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