About Huckleberry Finn and the "n"-word by jgn on Thursday, January 6, 2011 in Reading

Perhaps you've read about the new edition of Huckleberry Finn, which replaces the word "nigger" with the word "slave" ( http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/05/books/05huck.html?pagewanted=print).

This is inept on so many grounds.

First off, if you use the word "slave," readers will not be able to differentiate between places where "slave" is a substitute, and where the very word "slave" was used in the original text. Indeed, the first nominal use of the word slave comes at a very important moment. Huck thinks about what it would mean for Jim to be sold "down the river":

I thought till I wore my head sore, but I couldn't see no way out of the trouble. After all this long journey, and after all we'd done for them scoundrels, here it was all come to nothing, everything all busted up and ruined, because they could have the heart to serve Jim such a trick as that, and make him a slave again all his life, and amongst strangers, too, for forty dirty dollars. (source: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/76/pg76.txt)

Arguably, the entire plot hinges on this simple usage of the word "slave" by Huck; for it is this consideration that sets Huck on the path to help Jim out of slavery.

Just on this basis, the word would better be blacked out (so to speak) than be substituted with another word: In the novel, "nigger" and "slave" simply aren't synonyms, and their very difference is crucial.

Second: If you can't teach that novel to a class of students who might take offense, I'm sorry for you. I've taught the novel at the college level to students from disparate backgrounds: black, white, asian, rural, urban, rich, poor, you name it. How do you do it? Go slow, and provide lots of historical context. There are many texts from the 19th century that use the word in various ways, and you can set your students up to understand that context. The students will learn more, and they will be in a better position to analyze the word in the novel. Meanwhile, one does need to explain to students carefully that the word when used like a weapon is incredibly offensive. But believe me, students don't want to insult one another. When they do so inadvertently, the black students will role their eyes and will help you sort it out.

And what about teaching the novel to middle-school students? That I don't know. Maybe that's just not going to work. I would be surprised if a good high school teacher can't handle it. It would be tougher in a large group. If you can't do it, teach something else.

Third: "Slave"!? Good grief. This is really the same problem as the first point, but if you don't understand the insulting resonance of the word "slave" in contemporary America, then god help you.


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