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A literary classic becomes a ‘slave’ to racial debate

Being a famous American author means having your books read for generations. It means being forever re- membered as an influential part of history. And for Mark Twain it means having your words changed 126 years af- ter they have been written. Published in 1885, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was one of Twain’s most memorable and influen- tial fiction novels. It tells the tale of young men growing up in the South during a sensi- tive time in American history. One of the things most no- table about the book is its harsh criticism of, and it’s social commentary on racism and slavery. This is exem- plified by the book’s heavy use of the word “nigger.” With the up rise of po- litical correctness and racial sensitivity, in addition to the election of Barack Obama as president, anything regard- ing racism, especially books with a prevalent use of a ra- cially insensitive word, are avoided as much as pos- sible. It’s this attitude that

has led to a publisher at New South Books replacing the word “nigger” with “slave” in a 2011 edition of the book. Some historians argue that the change does not actu- ally ruin Mark Twain’s origi- nal meaning and will benefit students who were offended or felt uneasy while trying to learn the material. Other scholars say that the change does have an altogether dif- ferent connotation and ru- ins the intent of the original. Other than the obvious de- bate of racial insensitivity, there is at the heart, two is- sues to this topic. First is the umbrella of related issues of tampering with art, edit- ing history, changing an au- thor’s intent and freedom of speech. The other question at hand is what are the measures willing to be taken to ensure safe and beneficial learning experiences for students? It’s important to under- stand that a word, no mat- ter what it’s history, origin, or meaning is nothing more than a word. Words have no inherent power, only what

people place upon them. The speaker and their intent does play a role in how a word’s meaning can change. In the case of Twain, his use of the word “nigger” was not only a convention of the story’s context, but it was used to address the issues of racism. This can be shown at the end of the story when Huckleberry Finn no longer refers to Jim as a “nigger,” and both characters under- stand each other’s worth. By changing any part of the creator’s original work, it de- values it as a work of art. Also, because it was published the way it was, to edit new ver- sions of the book would essen- tially ignore the values of peo- ple in the past and what was accepted. This is just as bad as ignoring slavery altogether. Something else to take into consideration is the new word that they intend to use. Using the word “slave” is just plain incorrect as most of the book refers to Jim, a freed man. Many have also contested that the word “slave” is just as harsh and offensive, if not

more, than the word “nigger.” Perhaps the word choice may not have been the right one, but if the original word is at all offensive, or more impor- tantly, distracting to children, then exploring other possi- bilities may not be a bad idea. What’s more important than protecting the validity and originality of Mark Twain’s historically significant work, is ensuring that it remains, in at least some form, acces- sible to as many students, in as many classrooms, and for as many generations as pos- sible. If that means taking out a significant word and replacing it, then so be it. One has to wonder though, if after little more than a cen- tury we’re okay with tak- ing out words from an im- portant piece of literature, imagine what commonplace words might be considered inappropriate in the future and taken out of documents created today. It’s certainly a dangerous prospect, but one that will hopefully be taken into consideration with plenty of discussion.

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