Huckleberry Finn uses “nigger” 219 times. But not in the latest version, edited by Alan Gribben and published by NewSouth Books. Every one has been replaced with a euphemism. Gribben writes in his introduction, “We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers.”
More than twenty years ago a colleague at Hofstra University campaigned against Huckleberry Finn in the classroom precisely on these grounds. As an African American, she found the book racist because of its language and therefore unworthy of a place in America’s literary pantheon.
Two years ago I ran into a similar problem when I taught Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “The Artificial Nigger.” Several African American students boycotted the class, missing out, I thought, on a thoughtful and sensitive discussion about racism and the power of words. Their complaint went to the dean, where it died. Since I enforce a strict attendance policy, my immediate moral problem was whether to hold these conscientious objectors accountable for their actions, putting the grades of some at risk. I didn’t.
The larger, persistent moral problem is whether language deemed inappropriate should be avoided in schools. There appears to be a conflict between two moral values: avoiding hurtful language (sensitivity to others) and not imposing censorship (freedom of expression).
If the original version of Huck Finn wasn’t available in adult libraries or in bookstores, then there is a real problem. But making available an altered version for public school students seems reasonable enough to me. The introduction to Gribben’s edition alerts the readers to the changes in the text and the reasons for it. Under the guidance of a good teacher, this opens up a discussion about racism in a way that reading the book with the original word included does not, at least for many African Americans. It also makes clear to non-African Americans the role racism continues to play.
As for the problem I encountered: Would I teach O’Connor’s story again? If a class lends itself to it, I would, but only with much discussion with students beforehand. The significant lesson isn’t in understanding or even in appreciating the story but in the ways in which literature can make us more humane by entering into the lives of others who are unlike ourselves.
Would I teach “The Artificial Nigger” to a high school class? No. There are many good works to choose from that serve just as well—opening new vistas, breaking the ice of frozen souls, considering alternative views—without rubbing salt into wounds that still haven’t healed.