Archive | 12:35 am

Huckleberry Finn-word

8 Jan

What a clever title.

I recently received a text from my friend, Lanny, decrying the re-release of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn sans the “n-word” (nigger). [Editor’s Note: Why didn’t you just say the word?] [Kyle’s Note: What word?] [Editor’s Note: You know…the “n-word.”] [Kyle’s Note: What, “Neutral”?] [Editor’s Note: Nigger.] [Kyle’s Note: Oh my god. I’m so tired of you calling me that.] [Editor’s Note: I never call you that. Please don’t print that I call you that.]

I guess it’s not that big of a deal. The story itself doesn’t change. I mean, Huck still does all the same things. “Nigger” is just a word, right? And we all know that the words are the least important parts of books, anyhow (Most important: Cover, number of pictures, amount of literary credibility earned by reading, number of uses of the “n-word.”).

I find it terrifying.

A meeting between Jackson Stanfield, professor of literature, and W.B. Phillips, Editor of NewSouth Publications.

Jackson walks in. He’s wearing a tweed sports coat with leather patches at the elbow. This means he’s smart.

At his desk sits W.B. Phillips. He’s drinking coffee and looking very politically correct. His face contorts to a grimace as he sets down his rainbow coffee mug. It’s filled with an eggshell white substance that seems to be none-too appetizing to Phillips (He refuses to drink his coffee black. The image of a white male consuming a black liquid has too many charged connotations, so his coffee is always half milk and half coffee.). He always wears one white sock and one black sock. He refuses to eat a Mexican dish if he cannot properly pronounce every ingredient in its native tongue.

“Phillips!” Jackson declares, swinging the door open dramatically, stepping inside gallantly and then shutting the door in a theatrical manner in no way meant to suggest a sort of homosexual flamboyancy typical to males in the theater industry.

“Jackson, hello,” Phillips says. “I’m unmoved by your gayness. Or non-gayness. I have no opinion whatsoever on your sexual orientation and therefore will not react to it in any way. You’re about as erotic as a pile of sand to me. Not that a pile of sand is a bad thing. The Middle-East is rich with culture. Sand People are also great, despite their relatively fictitious nature.”

Jackson stops listening after “unmoved.” He sits down and opens his briefcase by unhooking the two latches.

“Have you seen this?” Jackson asks.

“Seen what?” Phillips responds.

Jackson lifts something out of his briefcase–a sheet of paper with “Nigger” written on it. “Have you seen this?” he asks again.

“Oh god!” Phillips says, jumping back, his hands held tightly to his chest. He composes himself. “I mean, what is that? I’ve never seen that word before. Is that some sort of character from a Dr. Seuss tale?”

“Phillips. You know what this is.”

“I do not. I’ve never read, said, or heard that word.”

“Have you ever read Huckleberry Finn?’

“Oh yes, a real classic. Truly great.”

“Okay, then you’ve seen this word.” Jackson is repeatedly lowering the paper behind the lid of his opened briefcase then springing it back out to frighten Phillips. Showing true, unyielding adherence to his image as the most p.c. of p.c. individuals, Phillips recoils every time.

“You mean that strange onomatopoeia you’ve scrawled on that paper-sheet? No, I don’t remember it,” Phillips responds.

“Yes you do. It’s a racial epithet from the darker corners of America’s past. The same place that currently holds Japanese internment, the slow genocide of much of the Native American population, and my first marriage.” Jackson smiles slightly, waiting for his joke to register.

“In the face of all those tragedies, I don’t think I can laugh at that,” Phillips says. His right hand is in his pocket and seems to be jabbing at his crotch. After knowing Phillips for as long as he has, Jackson knows that Phillips is poking his testicles with a pin in an attempt to put tears in his eyes.

“It’s my understanding,” Jackson begins, “that you want to remove this word from Huckleberry Finn. That you want to replace it with something less offensive–like ‘slave.'”

“Or ‘bro.'” Phillips says.


“Yea! ‘Ms. Watson’s bro, Jim.’ ‘I couldn’t blame Jim. He warn’t nothin’ but a bro.’ Isn’t that better? Isn’t that more current?”

Jackson sat for a second. “Well, I suppose the use of ‘bro’ is current, but there are several mentions of Jim’s enslavement. There are covered wagons. People use ferries without even an a drop of tourist-like irony. I’m pretty sure  I’d say that’s markedly not current.”

“Well current-ness aside, at least it’s less offensive.”

“I honestly feel that Jim being chained to a bed out in the shed of some white guy’s house is a little more offensive than the word ‘nigger.'”

Phillips yelps like a dog when you step on its tail. “You can’t say that!” Phillips whispered. “One of them might hear.”

Jackson’s eyebrows perk up. “One of who?”

Phillips’s eyes glaze for a moment. “Censors.” His mind drifts to the Globetrotters–to Run DMC–to the cast of Family Matters. Phillips hangs his head for a moment–ashamed.

“Anyway,” Jackson goes on, “I think you should seriously reconsider taking the word out.”

“Why? Everyone knows it’s offensive. It’s one of the most terrifically horrific words in the English language.”

The use of the phrase “terrifically horrific” makes Jackson sincerely doubt Phillips’s understanding of the English language. “Huck isn’t using the word as an insult, Phillips. He’s calling Jim what he is–according to that time.”

“Ah ha, so you s–”

“–And we must see it in that light–as a reflection of the time. It’s crucial. The fact that that word isn’t being used as an insult, per se, that, to Huck, it’s simply a term that denotes a creature just above the average farm animal, that message must be kept in place. It’s the dehumanizing factor of ‘nigger‘ that carries the most cultural relevance.”

“Slave is an insult as well.”

“Then what are you changing?”

Phillips opens his mouth for a moment, then shuts it again.

“If anything, ‘slave’ is more offensive. It’s an amplified hate. ‘Nigger’ hints at a kind of inequality. A ‘beneath-me’ status. And don’t get me wrong, it is incredibly offensive. But ‘slave’ comes out and identifies an organized, mandated oppression, which is vastly more offensive then a simple cultural disdain, because that legal oppression indicates a kind of hatred so strong that it’s reached the highest offices in the land, turning the heads of the politicians and law-makers, those who are paid and elected to uphold ‘justice.’ Use of the word ‘slave’ is only a reminder that, at the time, it was seen as ‘just’ to own another human being–if slaves were even considered human. So you see, you’re not fixing anything. You’re trading out one terrible label for another. You’re stomping on the author’s right to have his chosen words represent him in some sort of ill-founded attempt at political correct-ness. You’re watering down one of the greatest pieces of fiction this country has ever produced. You’re sneaking in through the back door of a man’s home and stealing just enough to let him know he’s been violated. While you may believe that the material worth of what you’ve stolen is small, the fact remains, it’s not yours to take, and that’s what offends the most.”

“But we’ve taken the ‘n-word’ out,” Phillips says.

“Yes you have, Phillips.” Jackson picks up his and walks out of the office without saying goodbye.

As the sound of Jackson’s footsteps slowly recedes into silence, Phillips sits staring at the door, which he now notices is of a fine wood, and may be offensive to environmentalists who stop by the offices. He later orders the door removed and replaced by something less offensive.

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