It was reported last week that some publisher is going to change Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huck Finn and reprint it so it’s fit to be read in the 21st century. Professor Somebody (like, I care what his name is) from Auburn has taken it upon himself to bugger up bowdlerize Twain by replacing the N-word with “Slave” and changing the I-word to “Indian.” He hopes to fluffy up an American tale that has some sharp edges on it and thus bring Twain to a whole new generation of uber-sensitive readers. The story caused such a stir across North America that this morning, less than 7 days later, I can find no mention of it. Obviously, the publishers are going to go ahead with this literary castration. My contempt for this sordid violation is surpassed only by my contempt for the society that allows it happen. Unfortunately, I am not Twain, so I don’t have the words to properly condemn us all to Hell where we will surely go for this brutal act of nice.
The N-word offends me. I’ve heard it a lot, in my time. It never gets easier on my ears. However, it doesn’t offend me that a dead white guy, hand-wrote it out in full, and published it in a fantastic novel more than 100 years ago. Why would it? People in 1885 were barbarians. They peed outside for God’s sake.
What offends me is the “N-word” itself. It offends me that perky TV personalities, who are so white they’re blue, use it with such pained contrivance. It offends me that academic fundamentalists, whose only brush with Black America was watching Spike Lee movies in their sophomore year, use the word to advertise their inherent understanding of The Black Experience. It offends me that regular people are starting to use it promiscuously, as though all the nuanced cruelty is covered up by this thin disguise. It offends me that it has become acceptable in polite society, just exactly the way its ugly grandfather was acceptable in 1885. And it offends me that the all the Professor Somebodies in the world think they’re doing Black people a big favour with this white-wash.
I have a good friend (I’m going to change his name because he is my friend) and when we were young and foolish, we used to drink together quite a bit. My friend wasn’t comfortable drinking at places I frequented so we used to drink at bars in his neighbourhood. One day he asked me, “Why do white people keep bringin’ this shit stuff up, all the time? Man, I got more stories than they ever seen.” We were drinking heavily at the time, and the conversation got waylaid before I could answer. Actually, that’s not true: this is what really happened, but I’m going to clean it up a lot — so nobody gets offended.
We were drinking heavily, and we ran out of money. My friend went over to his friends and said something like, “Hey, chums! I’ll bet you a pitcher of beer that I can show you a man with no butt.” They probably replied, “Nonsense! That’s seems highly unlikely. I’ll take that wager. Prove your statement to be true.” (This is losing something in the translation, isn’t it? Let me step it up a bit but not too much: I don’t want to offend anybody.) My friend brought his group of friends back to where I was sitting and said to me, “Stand up.” I did. He said, “See, African Americans? This man ain’t got no ass.” From there, the multi-level conversation went something like this.
“Whoa! You right! He ain’t got no ass!”
“Nonsense! Get ut da way. Let me see this stuff.”
“Po! What? He sick or sometin? Got a disease? Eat his ass off like dat?”
“Man, where he from, got no ass? He ain’t from aroun’ ‘ere man. No way. I’da noticed that stuff.”
My friend’s friends were clearly warming to the subject.
“Hey! African American! Come over here! Andrew got his self a guy wit no ass.”
“Whatta fornication? Where his ass at?”
“He don’t got one. See. He like straight up and down. Stick man.”
“Nonsense! How the maternal fornicator keep his pants up?”
“He got pants on, don’t he? See wit your eyes, African American!”
There was more, a lot more, but it’s difficult to portray the mood and spirit of the situation correctly while treading so carefully. Mark Twain didn’t have that problem. He lived in the Victorian Age — a time, by all accounts, as repressive as our own. They did, however, do one thing properly: they actually read the books before they burned them.
There will always be professor somebodies out there, ready to remedy the world. And there will always be anti-censorship cheerleaders who storm the blogosphere barricades for a whole 4 days or until their consciences are clear. But to the witless ones who aid them both in their endeavours, I say read Huck Finn — before it’s too late – because, when Huck says , “All right, so then, I’ll go to Hell.” at least he knows why he’s been condemned to make that journey and you should too.