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The “N-Word”

The “N-Word”

Or: Why Samuel Clemens would pimp slap Alan Gribben.

Note: This blog post will use language that some (read: Alan Gribben) might find offensivem, including frequent reference to and usage of, racial slurs. If you are offended by my use of these words in this post, please click here … and never ever come back. -md

It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.

– Huck Finn, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

It has taken me a few days to work out all of my feelings about a recently announced censored version of the Mark Twain classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. After all, when I first read the story, I was convinced it was another impressive parody from The Onion. After all, it isn’t every day a scholar who has never published a work of fiction of his own creating has the cojones to publish his own version of what is arguably the greatest American novel ever written.

For those who did not study literary theory in college, let me summarize the theme of Twain’s “Huck Finn.”  The book is a tale of one boy’s path to enlightenment in a world of abject hatred and ingrained racism. Through his relationship with a runaway slave named Jim, a man to whom Huck frequently refers as a nigger, Huck transcends the racism inherent in the system and comes to appreciate the humanity of Jim.

Twain intentional chose to refer to Jim as a nigger — and many other characters as such — as a direct affront to the delicate sensibilities of his readers. In fact, the Concord Library banned the book from its shelves because of its crude humor and focus on the baser elements of American society. That was kind of Clemens’s point.

Luckily, Gribbens and his edition have not gone ignored by the Main Stream Press 0r the blogosphere. Most of the defense falls among two lines:

  • Twain’s use of the word is an artistic choice and artistic choices in this country are sacrosanct.
  • Twain’s use of the word was and remains an accurate reflection of the social mores of the day.

While both of these are true, both diminish the most important defense that should be waged for calling Jim a nigger, for Pap’s rant about the nigger he met on the road, and for all of the uses of Injun throughout the book. Twain used these words because seeing them in printed form created an incredible discomfort in the minds of the people responsible for perpetuating and defending the racial divisions of the nation. You can see as much in the instance of the Concord Library.

This visceral response his readers had is tantamount to the response of “racially sensitive” Americans when they hear the word used by white folks today.

And this effect was intentional.

Twain wanted his readers to feel uncomfortable when presented a portrait of themselves, because through such a harsh reflection he sought to change the mores. And, if literary theorists and historians are to be believed, he in some small way contributed to the process.

Today, we still live in a divided world. The president is increasingly marginalized because he is black. We set people up as “the Other,” and thus the “lesser”, so we can diminish the power of their message, their actions or their words without ever having to actually process the message, actions and words. Because Barack Obama is (as one acquaintance recently put it) a nigger, we can turn off our ears and our minds and simply ignore him until he goes away.

The same can be said of the woman with the WIC card at Wal-Mart, or the eight unsupervised kids at the playground. Or that bright orange 1988 Buick Roadmaster. Nevermind the fact that the woman at Wal-Mart, the unruly children or the driver of the Roadmaster are just as frequently whites, we are too often content to label the black offenders “niggers,” and thus assign some underlying genetic deficiency to otherwise culturally patterned behaviors.

How far we have come in this world! Yes, Mr. Gribben. Now is precisely the time you need to be expurgating nigger from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.