The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain, has been critically acclaimed and the subject of much controversy since its publication in 1885. It’s not surprising that Twain’s fearless exploration of racism through the relationship between thirteen-year-old Huckleberry Finn, and Miss Watson’s African-American slave, Jim, was a hotly debated novel.
Though Huckleberry Finn is considered one of the Great American Novels, it continues to cause a stir. The book has been banned across the United States throughout the years, specifically in many southern states, for its use of the word “nigger.” The “n-word” as many prefer to call it in a “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” sort of way, is used in Huckleberry Finn over 200 times. Many school districts in the United States do not allow teachers to assign the book because of that controversial word. A Great American Novel that is kept from a significant number of students because of a word that makes people uncomfortable. A 2011 version of Huckleberry Finn published by a company in Alabama took matters into their own hands and cleaned up the manuscript. As if editing the dirty words out of a movie, the publisher simply substituted the word “nigger” with the word “slave.” (While they were at it, the company also removed another racially offensive word from the text: “Injun.”) The point of this edited version, of course, is to give students who would otherwise not see the book on their school’s reading list a chance to read it. Many educators and parents simply don’t like the idea of their children being around that word. The new version gives those students a chance to experience the story.
Or does it? Are the students who read the revised or “cleaned up” version truly experiencing “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by reading, basically, “The Revised Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?” What is the significance of the word in relation to the book? It’s clear that Twain uses it to help us fully understand the attitude that saturated the old south. Isn’t that the point of an author laying words down on paper? In an effort to tell a story in an honest way, authors chose their words wisely, sometimes agonizing over each one. Are these students being given the chance to fully understand what Mark Twain was trying to communicate? Or are they missing out on an important piece of the puzzle? Is removing this word from the novel the equivalent of removing the French and Indian War from an AP US History course? Furthermore, is the exchange of the word “nigger” for “slave” an honest translation? Is it really as simple as that? And isn’t replacing even one word or changing Twain’s text in any way, a form of censorship?
Another thing to consider is what, if anything, does it say about our society and our educational system? If Mark Twain was shining a light on racism by writing one of our Great American Novels does it make sense to change one word rather than use the entire text as it stands to explore the very reason why the word is an issue to begin with?