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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  February 2011


The N-Word ("Nonsense")

Sanitizing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Keeping with long-established Lightcap family tradition, I celebrated the advent of the new year like many other people, with a foily-papery, cone-shaped hat rubber-banded to my noggin and an array of drinking glasses cycling through my paw. I was anxious to see 2010 in my rearview mirror, but didn't think I needed to deprive myself of sleep to do it. Luckily, my party clock is set to New York time, so when the ball in Times Square slid down the pole like a glittery, rotund stripper, I tossed back my bubbly and kissed my beloved pillow. I had great hopes for the New Year. I had no idea that I was destined to wake up in Tipper Gore's America, where literature was being sanitized for a new generation that couldn't be disturbed by uncomfortable thoughts.

Showing that there really aren't too many things you can do with an English degree, a self-proclaimed "Mark Twain scholar" has published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition. What was significant about Dr. Alan Gribben's version of this American classic? He scrupulously removed every incidence of the n-word from the text. As a self-proclaimed Berkley Breathred scholar, I am appalled with two Ps.

Being of man of infinite patience and rural simplicity, I loathe the phrase, "the n-word." We all know what the word is, but we can't enunciate it from fear of having the indefensible charge of racism leveled at us. Unless you're a hip-hop star like 50 Cent or DMX, in which case it makes you cool with the kids. We know what "the n-word" is; the unabridged version pops into our brain whenever we see a reference to "the n-word." But what's the alternative? In the case of the NewSouth Edition of Huck Finn, the alternative is to replace it with the word "slave."

Dr. Gribben rationalizes his crime against humanity by explaining that when he went on a Huckleberry Finn lecture tour of Alabama (standing room only, I am sure), he was disturbed that middle- and high-school teachers were lamenting the fact they "no longer felt justified in assigning either of (the) books because of the hurtful n-word." This made me sad in my heart, because I didn't know that Alabama teachers are nitwits of such Herculean proportion. Changing the text doesn't change the fact that Jim was black at a time in history that it was tragically inconvenient to be so. I'm not really sure that drudging up our nation's shame by classifying him as a slave is so much less poignant than retaining the reviled n-word in its historical context, but what do I know? I am not a "Mark Twain scholar" with a tweed smoking jacket and a waxed moustache.

Rejecting the n-word is to reject the entire context of the story. It's an offensive word, and teachers should be offended by it. too. But if they avoid addressing its usage or, worse yet, avoid teaching Huck Finn altogether, then they're doing a piss-poor job of educating. Huckleberry Finn isn't about racial epithets. Twain himself said that it was about the search for freedom, and about the conflict between conscience and the heart. Huck had to ultimately judge "slave" Jim on his qualities as a friend and a human being, and went with his heart, something that challenged stereotypes of the American Negro when the book was published. The book was intended to paint a historical picture of societal racism for the ages, and Twain framed the story in a pre-Civil War period to emphasize the cultural context that was already changing — perhaps for the worse — with the story's postwar publication.

What's next for these politically correct pinheads posing as protectors of priggish propriety? Shall Holden Caulfield stop farting in church in Catcher in the Rye? Should the pigs in Animal Farm embrace equality and diversity? Should Tom Joad consider the farmers' point of view in The Grapes of Wrath? Should the baby in Everybody Poops quit showing kids its butthole? Okay, I will concede that last one, but to advocate removing the parts of books that make you feel "icky" so nobody else has to be faced with foreign ideas that take readers out of their comfort zone is just plain stupid. The fact that this latest round of revisionism comes not from the puritanical pariahs of Tipper Gore's ilk but from the hands of self-professed educators is flabbergasting. Lightcap drinks because you censor.

The n-word is a reflection of the time and the themes of Twain's story, and paints an accurate picture of the world Jim lived in. The actual word is offensive, and it needs to remain offensive. As a society, it is incumbent upon us to never forget the destructive power of that word, and what it has cost our nation and the people that inhabit it. If we try to expunge all the thoughts that make us uncomfortable and continue an idiotic pursuit of an ideal world that can never exist, we risk losing all that makes us beautifully fallible and divinely human. What point is celebrating a new year if we forget all the lessons of the old ones?

Maybe when pondering Dr. Gribben's actions, we should apply Huckleberry Finn's own words from Chapter 24: "Well, if I ever struck anything like it, I'm a nigger. It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race."

Henry Lightcap celebrates Black History Month in Las Cruces.

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