Wednesday, January 5, 2011

219 Easy Answers

What is to be done when a work of art is offensive? Here's one answer:

NewSouth Books plans to release an edition of Huckleberry Finn in which Mark Twain's 219 repetitions of the word "nigger" are replaced by "slave."

... The problem with Huckleberry Finn is that, like it or not, most high school teachers only have two choices these days: teach a bowdlerized version or don't teach it at all. It's simply no longer possible to assign a book to American high school kids that assaults them with the word nigger so relentlessly. As Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who led the bowdlerization effort, explained, “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.”

Given that choice, I guess I'd bowdlerize.
I guess I wouldn't. But since we're all parading around in our underwear whimpering about how offensive things are, I would like to throw in my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, profound offense at the implication that high school students of my day were unfazed by the 219 occurrences of the word nigger in the text of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

It so happens I was assigned this book in high school -- this book with all of its n-words included -- and the word was jarring and offensive all 219 times, even, mind you, in the context of late 1980s north central Oklahoma, where we were not innocent of the word. There's something about reading the word as part of a formal assignment -- and in a book revered as a classic, no less -- that comes across differently than when it casually spills out from behind a drunk neighbor's cigarette. It tends to give rise to a thought or two, but I get ahead of myself.

We, the students of 10th grade English class, got all the way through the book without race riots, violent outbursts, mental breakdowns, or really anything more severe than the usual carping about the difficulty of the book and whining about the length of the paper we had to write.

I distinctly remember some of that carping: it was difficult to read because, the teacher explained to us, Mark Twain went to great pains to recreate the idiom and dialect of the English spoken in the place and time of the novel's setting, which included pretty flagrant use of the word nigger. Race and civility in the antebellum south is the obsessive focus of the novel, and it could be that Twain, writing a few decades after the novel's setting, well after the Civil War, and in the midst of Reconstruction, had something in mind with these 219 offenses -- something beyond recapitulating the speech patterns he remembered from circa 1840 Missouri. Maybe he was trying to provoke a thought or two?

I think I stumbled across the key word: teacher. Getting through a book as rich and knotty as this one can really benefit from teaching. Too bad, because that costs a lot or whatever, and it's unlikely to noticeably boost scores on those goddamn standardized tests that determine school funding from one year to the next, so it's just not worth it. Better to cut out the bad words and let the book mean what it will mean to students, or let it come across as racist-sounding gibberish, or better yet, let it be dropped and forgotten along with everything else that's going to require explanation, court discussion, invite controversy, or provoke thought.

Because it is now established that an offensive word is an offensive word is an offensive word, and any deeper consideration is simply too expensive and difficult to deal with, Dave Chappelle's "Niggar Family" skit has to go -- not just from television rebroadcasts, but from our individual memories. Also, there are probably 219 uses of the n-word in any five songs of Kanye West's new album, so its universal critical acclaim can only mean that music critics are incorrigible racists, and that the album is racist, and that all of the above must be removed.

I look forward to the version of Moby Dick that removes all the offensive references to whale killing by replacing whale with, I don't know, snipe. Nah, it would be best to avoid that book completely -- it, too, had its share of racial indelicacies on top of its brazen embrace of animal cruelty. And gawd forbid anyone of school age should so much as a catch a glimpse of the cover of this one.

2 comments:

The Duchess of Cookies said...

Dale, wait. You have made my ears ... make that eyes... bleed with all your offensive language. I must go purify my senses with something benign and peaceful, like Biblical lit.

Thank goodness for states of sanity such as Texas, where they just delete all that offensive history from existence. I may rest easier now.

Dale said...

DC, I'm glad to be here for you. We must resist and, when possible, destroy those aspects of human experience that give offense. Always!