The Huck Finn Debate or This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things…
There are lots of bad solutions in this world.
Taking aspirin because you’re being hit in the head with a hammer is a terrible solution. Why? Because it does nothing to stop the hammer.
But what if you don’t have the power to stop the hammer? Is taking the aspirin really that bad of an idea?
Here’s the deal: I think the expurgated version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is as sad an idea as any. Regardless of the ethical issues surrounding intellectual property, removing the words “nigger” and “injun” serve only to weaken the blow of Twain’s message about humanity and how we think and conceive of others around us. It’s a beautiful, powerful novel that deserves to be read over and over in its true form for many generations to come, as it has been for generations past.
That said, I’m a little disheartened by some of the writing community’s online reaction to the release of this version of the book. The party line I’ve seen relies on arguments like “censorship is bad,” “this is political correctness run amok,” “rappers use the n-word all the time, so there,” and “this is a whitewashing of American history.” All things that are, to a certain extent, true. But then the discussion ends there. There’s no acknowledgment or understanding that the release of this book is a reaction to a bigger problem. It, in and of itself, is not the problem.
So that brings us back to bad solutions, which this edited book is. Just like aspirin.
Certainly, reading books like Huckleberry Finn in school can be a wonderful, rich opportunity for reflection, discussion, and growth. But sometimes…it really isn’t.
When I was in high school, I took a film class in which I was the only girl. And I remember watching “Smooth Talk,” and “A Clockwork Orange.” Both excellent movies, but both ones that deal with rape in very disturbing ways. The subsequent discussions with my male counterparts were extremely uncomfortable. Eye opening, but uncomfortable. I remember the male teacher being horrified by some of the opinions expressed regarding rape. So imagine discussing Huck Finn and being the one black kid in a room full of other students who are not at all sympathetic to your viewpoint? A lesson, yes, but at what cost? And for whom?
To argue that a misguided attempt to protect students from having to read the word nigger over two hundred times is somehow stupid or laughable is “whitewashing” the bigger issue: that racism and its effects still exist and that it can be a painful subject for people of all races and backgrounds to talk about.
The expurgated edition was never intended to let anyone off the hook from fully grasping our country’s history of slavery. It was meant to be a dose of relief for the kid who’s still getting hit in the head with the hammer. And while I think censorship is a terrible thing, if a less potent version of Twain’s message ends up allowing people to talk more calmly and openly about race and differences and shame and hurt that can only be a good thing. The truly sad thing about our society isn’t that people “can’t handle” offensive language, it’s that the language is still so damn offensive.
So perhaps we all need to read Huckleberry Finn again, in whatever version, to remind us this society’s inequalities and painful truths, both past and present. Then instead of jumping up and down with knee jerk reactions about how bad this bad solution is, we can focus our outrage on the fact that it’s not about the book.
Maybe then, we can all work collectively to take our hands off the hammer.