Friday, January 7, 2011

Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!

I will never forget the time in my childhood, even if I can't remember the exact date, when a teacher first told me about slavery in America. I was in the first grade in Georgia and I was so shocked that when I got home from school I asked my mother if it was true. She was from Ohio, and she was so sensitive about racism that she always insisted that my siblings and I should never use the word "nigger."(1) She told me that what the teacher said was quite true.

The effect on me of that piece of news, one of the most uncomfortable truths about American history, was to make me feel my whiteness for perhaps the first time in my life. I could never look at myself in the mirror, or at all the black people around me, the same way again. It made me wonder, even at such a young age, how it made black children feel, and it certainly made me understand the anger that was evident all over the Deep South in the mid-1960s.

A little more than a decade later, when I started college, my English 101 professor assigned Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for her students to read. She compared Mark Twain's revolutionary style in that novel to James Fennimore Cooper's in The Last of the Mohicans, arguing that Twain's language was alive while Cooper's was dead. I thought the argument unfair, since Twain deliberately wrote his book in the first person, and had to tailor the language to fit the narration of a semi-literate boy from Missouri. But the book was certainly alive and great fun to read. There was a general acceptance of Twain's vernacular language as representative of the time he was writing about - circa 1840 - and the place - the river that cut through an America that had states in which slavery was practiced and states in which is was abolished. The common use of the word "nigger" in the novel - 218 times I am told - was taken to be an unavoidable consequence of Twain's honest depiction of life on an around the Mississippi River.

Since the mid-'70s, sensitivity about the use of the word "nigger" has increased, as Americans have grappled with a ghost that will not be buried. The concept of "hate speech" has been slowly broadened to include all manner of words and phrases. Twain's novel has been scrutinized many times for its frank use of ordinary American speech. It has been banned from many school libraries because some administrators evidently believe that a library is no place for the truth.

The latest affront to Twain's great book, published by "New South Books" (what a loaded name!), is intended, I assume, to make everyone happy by removing the offensive word "nigger" and replacing it with the generic word "slave."(2) It has been produced for consumption by American public schools, presumably in high school English courses, and has made a book that was formerly shunned suddenly palatable to American public school districts.

My immediate reaction to the news of this "translation" of Twain's novel was why on earth it was being taught in public high schools in the first place. The reason is simple: many people still regard the book as suitable for "juvenile reading," intended for "young readers." Since I dropped out of high school after failing the 10th grade, I was spared having my interest in literature smothered by the compulsory reading of literary classics. I didn't read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until my first year of college. It made me a far more critical and receptive reader than I would have been in high school.

If you examine the reasoning (such as it is) behind the opposition to Twain's unexpurgated text, you will find that there are just as many people who don't want its frank and unapologetic depiction of a painful time in American history to be disseminated as there are people who object to the word "nigger."

Come to think of it, why aren't there any parent-teacher groups out there attacking the novel for its homoerotic content? Jim almost invariably addresses Huck in the novel as "honey." Or is Leslie Fiedler's analysis, which raised eyebrows and blood pressures as long ago as 1948, too subtle for them, or too scary?

(1) Though my mother was from Ohio, my father was from Lagrange, Georgia. When she went to meet his parents after they were married in 1946, she had a curious encounter with a black man on the streets of Lagrange. Walking alone down the sidewalk one day, a black man was walking toward her. As soon as she was within ten yards or so, the black man stepped off the sidewalk into the gutter and took off his hat as my mother walked past him. When she told my father of the black man's strange behavior, my father explained that, if the black man hadn't done just that, he would've been found hanging from a tree the following morning. My mother told my father to take her back to Ohio as soon as possible.
(2)One of the principal characters, Nigger Jim in Twain's original, becomes "Slave Jim."


Irv Rahn said...

You used the n-word 5 times. Didn't your mother tell you never to use that word?

Dan Harper said...

I used it six times. My mother, alas, is no longer around to chastise me. Then came you.

Anonymous said...

Have you read "The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson? A MUST. I am from Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, from a large and poor white family. When i was learning to read, I saw "WHITES ONLY" painted on the window of the laudromat. I asked mama, "Where do people go to wash their dark clothes?" She explained what the sign meant, and I noticed signs everywhere after that. It made no sense to me, and I did not understand why grownups just accepted it as 'the way things are.' Wilkerson's book explains life on the other side of the tracks in my own parish. Thank you for your essay. Nancy