Huck Finn’s n-word: Preserving Artistic Integrity or Ethnic Property Rights?

January 14, 2011 at 11:35 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

As Americans we have a hard time talking about race in this country when the n-word is not involved. And when this epithet is, predictably, we behave schizophrenically.

And much of the kerfuffle is about who’s staking a claim on its use.

The now recent kerfuffle concerning the n-word is focused on Samuel Langhorne Clemens’, known fondly to us as Mark Twain, New South Books edition of the 1885 controversial classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

In a combined effort to rekindle interest in this Twain classic and to tamp down the flame and fury the use of the n-word engenders both from society and readers alike, who come across the epithet 219 times in the book, Mark Twain Scholar, Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University in Alabama, proposed the idea that the n-word be replaced with the word “slave.”

“The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups. There is no equivalent slur in the English language. As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact. Even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative,” Gribben writes in the introduction of the new edition.

I think for grade and middle school students, the word should be removed. I remember reading the text as a sixth grader at a predominately white public school in Brooklyn and suffering mightily from both the teacher’s inept ability to contextualize the text and from my classmates’ insensitivity concerning the epithet. But several years later, unfortunately, I experienced “deja vu all over again” with this text. This time, I was a first year student at Wellesley College and suffering mightily, because of the professor’s ineptitude in contextualizing the use of racist language.

Gribben’s intent in substituting the epithet with the word “slave” is to make the book user-friendly for a certain school-age group so that a teachable moment on the inflammatory use of racial epithets can be civilly addressed and analyzed in a learning environment. However, because of an often volatile reaction to Twain’s use of the n-word in“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” we miss not only the intended lesson but also the beauty of the story and the bonding that take place between Huck (the protagonist) and Jim (an adult enslaved African American who escaped from slavery) because both are runaways trying to reach freedom.

I am troubled, however, in this recent kerfuffle concerning the n-word how many of us African Americans, in particular, go back and forth on its politically correct use.

Let’s do a walk down memory lane:

In December 2006 we blamed Michael Richards, who played the lovable and goofy character Kramer on the TV sit-com “Seinfeld” for using the n-word. The racist rant was heard nationwide and shocked not only his fans and audience that night at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood but it also shocked Americans back to an ugly era inU.S. history.

In July 2008 we heard the Rev. Jessie Jackson used the n-word referring to Obama. And Jackson using the word not only reminded us of its history but also how the n-word can slip so approvingly from the mouth of a man who was part of a cadre of African Americans leaders burying the n-word once and for all in mock funeral at the 98th annual NAACP’s convention in Detroit in 2007.

And in 2009 Dr. Laura Schlessinger ending her radio show, a week after she broadcast a five-minute-long rant in which she used the N-word 11 times.

In 2003, the NAACP convinced Merriam-Webster lexicographers to change the definition of the n-word in the dictionary to no longer mean African Americans but instead to be defined as a racial slur. And, while the battle to change the n-word in the American lexicon was a long and arduous one, our culture’s neo-revisionist use of the n-word makes it even harder to purge the sting of the word from the American psyche.

We must, as Americans, look at the systemic problem of what happens when an epithet like the n-word, which was once hurled at African Americans in this country and banned from polite conversation, now has a broad-based cultural acceptance in our society today.

Popularized by young African Americans’ use of it in hip hop music, the bantering and bickering over this word today is no longer about who has been harmed or hurt by its use, but who has the right to use it, which is why some people are publicly pulverized and others are not.

Our culture’s present-day cavalier use of the n-word speaks less about our rights to free speech and more about how we as Americans – both White and Black – have become anesthetized to the damaging and destructive use of this epithet.

Many African Americans, and not just the hip hop generation, state that reclaiming the n-word serves as an act of group agency and as a form of resistance against the dominant culture’s use of it, and therefore the epithet gives only them a license to use it.

However, the notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to refer to each other using the n-word while considering it racist for others outside the race, unquestionably sets up a double standard. Also, the notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is a reductio ad absurdum argument, since language is a public enterprise.

African Americans’ appropriation of the n-word as insiders neither obliterates the historical baggage with which the word is fraught nor obliterates its concomitant social relations among Blacks and between Whites and Blacks. Just because some African Americans use the term does not negate our long history of self-hatred.

The n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African Americans. However, today the meaning of the n-word is all in how one spells it. By dropping the “er” ending and replacing it with either an “a” or “ah” ending, the term morphs into one of endearment. But, many slaveholders pronounced the n-word with the “a” ending, and in the 1920s, many African Americans used the “a” ending as a pejorative term to denote class differences among themselves.

Language is a representation of culture. Language re-inscribes and perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender and sexual orientation we consciously and unconsciously articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world, and consequently transmit generationally.

My enslaved ancestors knew that their liberation was not only rooted in their acts of social protests, but also in their use of language, which is why they used the liberation narrative of the Exodus story in the Old Testament as their talking-book. The Exodus story was used to rebuke systemic oppression, racist themes, and negative images of themselves.

However, too many of us keep the n-word alive, because reclaiming racist words like the n-word does not eradicate its historical baggage and its existing racial relations among us.

Instead, it dislodges the word from its historical context and makes us insensitive and arrogant to the historical injustice done to a specific group of Americans. It also allows Americans to become unconscious and numb in the use and abuse of the power and currency this racial epithet still has, thwarting the daily struggle many of us Americans work hard at in trying to ameliorate race relations.

I think Gribben’s is trying to do that with his edition of Huck Finn.

Reverend Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker and theologian.  She has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

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