Don’t Sanitize Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Okay, by removing “nigger” from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and replacing it with “slave,” the novel has been robbed of its authenticity. Readers should have an opportunity to experience a text exactly how the writer penned it. Additionally, “injun” should not be removed from the work either. When you remove and/or modify words of an author’s work, you are rewriting the work. We don’t want to read the revised version of an editor—we want to read the author’s original version of the text. Professor Alan Gribben, English professor at Auburn University, has elected to remove the words “nigger” and “injun” from the NewSouth edition of this great American classic, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We don’t need Professor Gribben trying to make this novel more pleasant for us to read. I really think that Professor Gribben eliminated these words to make this classic easier for White K-12 teachers to teach it. It’s not really about hearing and reading the terms “nigger” and “injun”—it’s really about the guilt that many, if not most, White people have when these terms are mentioned, especially nigger.

Since Professor Gribben is an English professor, I’m really stunned that he would tamper with the authenticity of this novel in the first place. One thing that I have learned as an English major and university English instructor is those who critically study literature have a reverence for the original text. Therefore, it is understandable that people remain curious as to why this man is robbing the work of its authenticity. Of course, I understand that editors have to make choices but this is such a substantial revision of the text, considering we are talking about the removal of over 200 words. The fact that Twain mentioned “nigger” over 200 times in the novel signals that this word is crucial to understanding the novel in its totality. You cannot say that you are trying to prevent young students from hearing and reading the word nigger—they already hear and read the word inside and outside of the schools they are situated.

Eliminating nigger and injun gives all K-12 instructors a pass on the serious responsibility they have to engage students in serious discourses and understandings about race and the history of race in America. When nigger and injun are encountered in this classic American novel, teachers have an opportunity to educate students about the history of the words, the context in which they were used, and suggest their significance to what the novel is striving to communicate.

Literature is history. Nigger and injun are terms with unique and important histories that teachers have a responsibility to inform their students about. One of the dominant reasons why schools are not empowering students in the way that they should be is they are committed to giving them a miseducation. When you replace the word “nigger” with the word “slave,” that’s a substantive change you have made. Yeah, there are affinities that the terms share but those terms have their important differences and histories that we must know. We have to love our students enough to give them the truth. We cannot give our students the truth when we hide things from them that we think might be unsettling to them.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has the power to unsettle, unnerve, and unhouse us—when we embrace and engage with the text exactly how Twain penned it. Yes, “nigger” and “injun” may unsettle, unnerve, and unhouse some students, but we all need to be unsettled, unnerved, and unhoused so that we can gain true paideia (true education). When we gain true paideia, we begin to surrender misunderstandings and exchange them for true knowledge. Our students need true paideia to help them to realize that they need to embrace the substantial over the superficial.

Don’t sanitize a work of art. When you sanitize a work of art, you crush the work of art. Twain’s novel is a touchstone—don’t touch its originality.

This effort to be post-racial is stupid. America cannot be post-racial right now. Sorry to inform you but the legacies of Jim and Jane Crow, slavery, and postmodern discrimination in sundry forms (both subtle and overt) prevent us from living in a post-racial Utopia—at least right now. The social construction of race has been tremendously damaging. Educators need to inform their students about the harsh economic and social realities of the social construction of race.

If we are to achieve a truly multi-racial democracy, we are going to have to wrestle with serious race matters. We are going to have to have the courage to stare race in the face and expose its good dimensions and its ugly truths.

Dear Professor Gribben, you are not going to stop folk from seeing people as “niggers” and “injuns” by simply removing these words from a work of art. You are not going to make this a more pleasant nation by removing these terms. You have done us more harm than help by removing these terms from this classic American novel. Thanks for letting us know that you are one of the prominent members of the thought police. Again, don’t sanitize Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because America did not sanitize race and racial discrimination for Blacks, Native Americans, and other racial and ethnic minorities in America.

Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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8 comments

  1. I have mixed feelings about the N-word but I am for certain I rather read it than have someone say it to me. My friends and people I date know not to say it around me. I think the educational setting would be better for the n-word to exist. Some things we can’t change and I’m sure Mark Twain, as awesome as he is, wouldn’t want it erased either. I think it takes away from the literary structure of any work. I say leave it just don’t say it to me… ever! Literature is history. History is already altered so much you never even know what’s authentic or not, especially in early childhood education. You just listen to the teacher and whatever she says goes. This stripes away those important conversation and differences needed.

    As stated, I’m fine with the word in print but just don’t say it aloud to me. Then we’re fine. I see we’re giving words power from the paper now. But why the change after all this time?

    1. @Drew: Ever since President Obama nationalized and popularized the term “post-racial,” people from all areas have been trying to erase race and race-consciousness from everything. This editor is trying to make Adventures of Huckleberry Finn absent of two of the most negative terms (“nigger” and “injun”) associated with race and racism. This is simply the politics of color-blindness, which tries to make us believe that we don’t see color/race. The editor is making an attempt to deodorize the funk that is America, which race and racism is very much a part of this funk. When you put deodorant on funk, you still get funk. Lol! The editor is trying to mask funk with deodorant. Students need to be educated about these terms. The novel should be left alone–it’s an American classic. I understand your viewpoints on vocalizing this horrible word.

  2. Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what they’re talking about on the internet. You definitively know how to bring an issue to light and make it colossal. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

    1. @Wilber: Thanks so much for your very kind words. I have over 126,000 readers, but what I find is that almost all of them don’t make comments, so it makes it appear that I don’t have many readers. Again, I appreciate your very kind words. Thanks for reading and your response.

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