How Many Times Can I Call You By a Bad Name?

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being reprinted and one of the main questions surrounding the upcoming unveiling by one scholar came across my ears on the radio.  Should Mark Twain’s use of the N-word be sanitized to fit audiences and readers of today and beyond?  There are a lot of posts and articles about this, and here’s one I’ll suggest, though you can find a dozen easily.

High school and college students, of whatever color and skin tone, are reading the 200+ references to Black folks and first-nation peoples in the novel, constantly employing the word that’s frowned upon by Black folks, Native people, and other folks.  Point a pin here: it is true that the N-word is used within the Black community with a frequency that is both constant and contested.  I’m not going there in this post.  This post is about writing and publishing.

I think the language in Mark Twain’s novel should stay the way he printed it.  Here’s why.

  1. That’s the way Twain wrote the novel.  As a to-be-published novelist I take this matter seriously.  Writing is hard.  Writing is work.  After all that fighting and researching and soul-wrenching and editing and emailing and reading tracked changes and questioning whether I should do this or something else and crossing of my eyes, I don’t want somebody else changing the words which finally get to the printed page.  Of course someone will edit my work.  I told Dawn the other day that my freelance editor is working.  My agent, when I get one, will have a revision letter.  My in-house editor will have her or his own multiple-page vision which will require another (re)writing.  So, it’s not that changing words is a problem.  The problem is that the writer goes through those steps to agree with himself of what he wishes to be printed.  I’d despise having someone change 200+ words in my novel–whatever the word or words.
  2. Language is instructive and contextual.  Twain’s language anchors the reader and student in his world or at least in his vision of a world as created for that novel.  The language sprung from his time and it teaches us, in our time, about the society around the author who was married to a Black woman, or, more appropriately, around his characters.  I read a quote from a teacher saying that that teacher would love to teach the novel but that “In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.”  Of course I asked the teacher in my head, what’s the new classroom and when has it ever really been acceptable in “contemporary” times?  That said, Twain’s words do teach.  The uncomfortability that lifts in that teacher’s students and in their throats is instructive.  Those things are symbolic of a problem with the souls of a reading and language-using public that so spoke of Black folk and Native people.  Last, remember that Twain’s use of his words were counter-cultural, and that goes back to my first point.  Why change them?

What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “How Many Times Can I Call You By a Bad Name?

  1. Thanks for writing about this, Michael. I had wondered what your opinion would be and it is as I had thought it might be. I agree. As hard as history often is–we remember it with as much clarity and honesty as we can so we can learn from it, whether it be personal, family, church, country history. Re-writing it to make it “right” in values, language, behavior only white washes what could be instructive. We are shaped and informed by our history, but we are not condemned to repeat it if we are clear about where we came from and what was wrong and then proceed with to learn, grow and make it right.

  2. Three things:
    –>I like that your posts are thought-provoking without being provocative, if that makes sense. They make me think, make me want to respond, but not with that triggered sense of urgency that overdramatized rhetoric can generate.

    –>I think that unless we’re willing to be honest with ourselves about what *was*, we won’t be able to look at and address what *is* with perspective.

    –>Also, as a writer, I feel you about having any of my words changed after I’ve worked so hard to get them to the page.

    (OK, maybe four things: is “uncomfortability” a word?)

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