Friday, March 4, 2011

Huck Finn and the "N" Word

I recently had to re-explain the "N" word to my Haitian daughter.  Me, the white mom, just had to re-explain a word that encompasses centuries of bigotry and injustice to my sweet, beautiful daughter.
Never, not once, has the word been used towards me.  Nor will it ever.  There is a chance, God forbid, that somebody could someday direct it towards my children.

I had explained the word to her once before, a year or so ago when she wanted to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  She had read an abridged version for children that left out the word (and much of the difficult drama) and wanted to read the the full version.  I told her about the difficult themes in the book and explained the origin of the word and the intention behind it.  She changed her mind, letting me know she did not want to read a book with such a hateful word in it.

Then she forgot.  Literally.  Rhubarb has some short-term memory issues, most likely due to early malnutrition.  This is a blessing and a curse -- in this case, a blessing.  It bought her a little more time for growth.

She re-read the abridged version of Huck Finn the other night and asked me for the unabridged.   We re-visited the entire "N" word conversation.   

I am out on a limb all alone on this one.  I am a WHITE woman.  Her only brown-skinned relative is her little brother.  This is one of those moments where I wish more than usual that her birth family could be a part of our lives.  That she could be comforted by the collective wisdom of her ancestry.

Still, she is older now, and despite my genuine befuddlement over why Huck Finn is routinely assigned to children in the first place, she is such a sophisticated reader that I wanted her to make her own decision about the book.  I let her know that there are now two versions, one with the "N" word and one without.  After I explained to her what the word meant again,  she requested the version without.

I know there is controversy surrounding the newer version.  How can you change a classic?  One has to read it in context, understand the era in which it was written, about which it was written.  Eliminating the "N" word strips the book of its original literary value, making it too comfortable.

I get it.

Still, I have now had the same conversation twice with my Haitian-American daughter and twice she has responded with sadness and disgust.  It is not about censorship.  It is not about free speech.   It is not about altering or ignoring history or literature.  It is about access to literature that holds the unfortunate distinction of having been born during an era where bigotry was overt and acceptable (acceptable by the majority, that it). It is about reading a word repeatedly that carries such enormous weight for one particular group of people, denying both dignity and humanity.  I would have the same reaction were I to consider reading a book that refers to all women with the "C" word.  I am sure I could not absorb any of the good in the book were it necessary for me to constantly wade through such vitriolic verbiage.

An argument I have heard that makes sense to me came from Larry Wilmore on the on Jon Stewart Show.  He said, "The n-word speaks to a society that casually dehumanized black people...Twain's point was that he can't run away from being a [n-----]."

Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth EditionI agree.  This is an important point and Huck Finn is an important book for its portrayal of a harsh era in a difficult place, fraught with inustice.  It is a story that needs to continue being told.  Now, with the issue of an edition that makes it more accessible to those who would find reading the original version too painful, it can touch more people.  Now, we have a choice.   When Rhubarb is an adult, or even a teenager, she might make a different choice.  For now, she has no desire to have a word that has been used to denigrate people who look a lot like her -- just because they look a lot like her -- thrown in her face every page or so.

1 comment:

PopCultural said...

Your point brings two responses to the front of my mind.

First, you're spot-on with your analysis of access-to-literature vs author's-historical-context. Hopefully those who read Huck Finn plus-N-word get more out of the story than the content of one single word. Twain was a masterful storyteller. The moral and spirit of the story are not lost in translation.

My second point is in agreement with you around the idea that literary translation does not change the meaning of the story.
(Warning : Christian-centric argument... non-Christians, you may be able to ffer your own culturally-centered example ) -- To those who disagree, please consider the translations of The Bible. Do you believe KingJames holds different meaning of Gods-Word than NewStandardRevisedVersion ? What does that difference mean in the context and literary content of the book?

I believe I just fanned the fire. :)

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