N is for Nigger

Literature

 

The ongoing hubbub in the United States over the expunging of the word nigger from a new edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn draws attention yet again to contentious and long-standing debates relating to race and racism, free speech and censorship, and education and enculturation, among others.

 

Samuel Langhorne Clemens’s most famous book is admittedly difficult to approach in America today, and certainly requires careful guidance for its younger readers. Since its publication, the novel has sparked public and scholarly debate about its intentions, tendencies, and meaning, but this recent edition, which replaces nigger with slave in all 219 instances of the word, appears to arise not out of such debates, but out of a contemporary American revulsion for the word and all its baggage.

 

Clemens wrote eloquently against American imperialism and was an ardent civil rights supporter, as well as one of America’s most biting satirists. The first edition of Huckleberry Finn establishes the tongue-in-cheek tone with a preliminary “NOTICE”: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.” The narrative is purportedly written by the title character in a regional dialect that borders on parody in its accuracy, which elicited charges of crudeness on the book’s first publication. Within a few pages of the first chapter, nigger makes its first appearance, written casually by Huck as he describes the end of a typical day living with the widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson: “By and by they fetched the niggers in and had prayers….” The word appears 218 more times, written and uttered both by Huck and other people he encounters on his “adventures.”

 

The title page of the first edition sets the scene: “Forty to Fifty Years Ago,” which would have been between 1835 and 1855. In writing a book set before the Civil War 20 years after it had ended, Clemens was apparently addressing the lingering sentiments that the Civil War had sought to neutralize, and hoping to further the cause of African-American civil rights by dramatizing the grotesqueness of such attitudes. Arguably, he uses an offensive and derogatory word both in the interest of verisimilitude (his painstaking transcriptions of regionalisms and Huck’s misspellings and grammatical tics attest to this) as well as exaggeration (satire’s primary strategy), and precisely because it was offensive and derogatory. The word was in common, casual usage in the novel’s milieu, and part of the point of the novel is to depict its ubiquity among certain sectors of American society in a specific historical period—which, at the time of the novel’s publication, was already a generation prior—the better to point out its continued currency 20 years after the Civil War had ended.

 

Zeroing in on the mere presence of the word is to ignore the narrative’s primary arc: Huck, the 13- or 14-year-old boy, consciously rejects the (racist) knowledge he has received from the world he grew up in to protect a person he has come to know as a human being. This is the process that we follow as we read about his adventures. “All right, then, I’ll GO to hell,” he declares famously at the pivotal moment when he recognizes Jim’s humanity. To be offended or rendered uncomfortable by nigger today only reinforces the power of Clemens’s satire, and ought to compel contemporary readers to consider how much (or how little) has changed in the last 150 years.

 

(That being said, Huckleberry Finn is not a perfect work, and Clemens was no saint. Perhaps more offensive than the use of nigger is Huck’s remark about Jim near the end of the book: “I knowed he was white inside,” which implies a binary opposition and its attendant privileging of whiteness over blackness, besides being condescending, albeit unintentionally. In another episode, Jim is made up in blue face paint and labeled a “Sick Arab” as an effective way of disguising him. Ernest Hemingway also pointed out that in the last chapters of the novel, Jim’s depiction slips into caricature and stereotype. The novel can perhaps be best described as well-intentioned, but not entirely successful at its supposed aim of exposing the grotesqueness and continued ubiquity of racism.)

 

While it’s true that the word nigger has a particularly ugly history, erasing it from a widely-read piece of fiction denies that history and paves the way to forgetting it, which is even more dangerous than allowing nigger to remain in common usage. The effort to “sanitize” the novel apparently comes from a misguided impulse to spare the young and innocent from discomfort, because Huckleberry Finn is standard fare in American primary and secondary schools (although constantly challenged), and is perceived as one of the quintessential American books for young readers.

 

The best protection that can be offered to the supposedly defenseless should be knowledge and information, the better not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to understand the conditions of the present. Reminding people of unpleasant things is necessary when such unpleasant things are shown to have caused the suffering and death of other people, and to prevent their recurrence.

 

The meanings and associations of words change over time, but technologies of information storage, like books, give a degree of permanence to instances of usage. The amount of recorded history and culture that a 21st century person can access is already practically inconceivable, so a reaction such as censorship is understandable, albeit panicked, knee-jerk, and ultimately futile.

 

Even if we assume that a child who picks up an unexpurgated Huckleberry Finn has never heard contemporary rap music, and that, upon reading the word nigger and divining its meaning from context clues, the child decides to add it to his everyday vocabulary, surely there would be someone—a parent, a teacher, a sibling, a friend, a random stranger—who would hear him use it and engage him in a discussion of his choice of word? But before that, surely he would note the word’s strangeness (or familiarity) depending on the company he keeps, and therefore think about its conventionality. To answer in the negative denies a person’s capacity for critical thinking. Sanitizing a text relieves the society at large of the “burden” of having to explain the ugly history of nigger to its young, but it cannot undo the past.

 

Words are powerful because they name and label. Denying their existence only reinforces that power, the way that Gwyneth Paltrow warbling “forget you” on primetime television catapulted Cee-Lo Green’s more appropriately profane “Fuck You” into the mainstream consciousness. Words can and do lose their currency (as have darky and spade), and the persistence of nigger only points to larger, lingering problems that cannot be addressed by willful amnesia.

 

A child who picks up this new Huckleberry Finn will wonder why the author/narrator persists on calling a man who desires freedom a “slave,” particularly when he is revealed to be no longer a slave. He will have missed a lesson on respect for fellow human beings, on the importance of diction, and on the need to be vigilant for injustice. He will not realize the extent to which a historical period and its culture can exercise a profound influence on later periods. He will not learn why the use of nigger is unacceptable in his time, and he will not feel its explosive power when it is deliberately deployed.

 

If we suppose further, that nigger is successfully removed from the American lexicon, and that the child grows up with no knowledge of that word, what would he do if he needs a word that can sum up the casual cruelty, suspicion, and discrimination that he sees continually directed at African-Americans because of their physical appearance? What if, heaven forfend, he becomes a writer in search of the right word? He just might have to invent one.

 

 

Education, Free Speech, Race