The whole hubbub about the creation of an edition of Huckleberry Finn with the word “nigger” changed to “slave” reminded me of a reference interaction I had about a year ago. I was sitting on the reference desk at the library when one of my regular patrons came up with a question. They were looking for a book of Flannery O’Connor short stories for their reading club. There were a few specific stories that they wanted to read and they wanted to know if I could find a collection that had the four they were slated to read. The rest of the exchange went something like this:
Patron: “I need a book that has following short stories: (story name 1), (story name 2), (story name 3), and [pauses and lowers voice to near whisper] The Artificial Nigger.”
Me: “Excuse me? What was that last one?” [I actually didn’t hear him his voice was so low]
Patron: [a little louder but still leery] “The Artificial Nigger.”
With a bit more searching, I was able to find the patron a pair of collected volumes so as to get all four stories for them. For someone watching the interchange, it had to be a bit ridiculous to observe as we would drop our voices down low every time we mentioned the title of that particular short story. It was, after all, part of the name of the short story they were looking for. We weren’t referring to anyone by that term; we weren’t usually it in a manner that made light of it. But, as we both knew and understood the hurtful history of the term, we acted on the fact that it was not a term that we wanted to be overheard saying without the benefit of the context of the conversation.
In reflecting on that brief exchange and the term in my own life, I have an odd relationship with the word. On the one hand, I’m a WASP that grew up in the New Jersey side of Philadelphia suburbs. I’m pretty mindful of the term in having only a handful of black classmates. It’s one of those terms you didn’t use unless you wanted to provoke a fight. I was taught early on that it was one of the worst slurs that you could say to anyone. To an extent, it was a word that could transcend context and be partially unacceptable even in the most meaningful exchanges (like the one I had with my regular).
On the other hand, one of my favorite movies of all time that I was introduced to in high school is the Mel Brook’s classic “Blazing Saddles”. My friends and I loved that film and as such would quote it to each other, including the New Sheriff scene (amongst others that featured the word “nigger”). We wouldn’t censor ourselves at all when it came to the language. We knew and understood what the term meant there. Even at a high school age, we could understand why the word was acceptable in one context and not in many others.
In looking at this new edition of Huckleberry Finn, it is not the changing of the author’s words that concerns me the most. The publishing industry has released edited and re-edited version of literature for hundreds of years that change around the wording of the original. My principle concern is the mindset behind the changes as it concerns the reader. Specifically, it is a lowering of expectations in how the reader will interpret and react to the terminology as presented in the original text. In other words, that the word is so unacceptable that it cannot be presented to any audience for fear of being misunderstood or taken as being personally offensive.
I believe that the real crime in this case is dumbing down the text of a work of literature like Huckleberry Finn through word substitution. It shows a lack of respect for the reader’s intelligence to deny them the chance to make an informed decision as to the text, to be able to take the meaning of the original context, and make their own decisions on it. It lowers the bar for everyone in making a sweeping decision that since some may find offense it should be forbidden from all. It seeks to create a ‘one size fits all’ text when literature has the capability of pushing boundaries and comfort areas. In essence, the change of the word “nigger” to “slave” in Huckleberry Finn seeks to unravel the very purpose of literature as commentary on life and society as a whole.
While the cry of censorship has risen out from the ranks of libraryland, I think the better line is that we owe it to our readers to say that we have faith in their ability to tackle hard subjects. We go to bat for works of literature that present uncomfortable and/or controversial issues so that they (not others) can make decisions as to the meaning of the text. With Mr. Twain’s work, it is no different now than it was then’; it is important to acknowledge that and act accordingly. The continued opportunity for future generations of understanding and interpreting depends on that.