Huckleberry Finn, offensive words and morality

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.




7 thoughts on “Huckleberry Finn, offensive words and morality

  1. I was hoping you might talk about this! It has been a hot topic amongst some inner circles of friends:)

    The discussion about the “N” word in Huck Finn has obscured I think a larger ethical issue, which is the right of educators to choose books for children to read that portray a certain ethnic/racial group in a way that is objectionable to that group. For many years there has been debate about using Huck Finn as a novel in Grammar/ High school, not only its use of N*, but its portrayal of African Americans human, yes, but as ignorant, obedient, Uncle Tom stereotypes. The story was written by a white man, and told from the point of view of a white child. How do black children, especially in mostly white classrooms, feel when they have to read this book and talk about it with white students? It seems that the infinite numbers of books available to choose from leads one to question the choice of Huck Finn as THE book for opening up discussion about racism in society. Why not a book written by a black person about the black experience? Then, if the word “N” is used, it is being used by a black person to describe THEIR OWN subjective experience, rather than having an identity imposed by whites.

    What do you think?

  2. Huckleberry Finn is considered by some to be one of the great American novels. It reflects a particular time and place. And, I think the relationship between Huck and Jim finally stands as a critique of racism. These are the aspects of the novel that a good teacher should address.

    There are many good books written from an African American point of view and also should be taught. But I wouldn’t get rid of Huckleberry Finn, just alter the offensive language for high school students, as the new edition does.

  3. Hmm, this is a thorny one that I’m still going back on forth about. Huck Finn is considered one of the Great American novels, but those who have chosen that canon are white men. It reflects a particular time and place from a distinctly white perspective that presents a very limited view of black reality/identity.

    Although I would like to believe that most teachers will present their classes with a thorough critique of the book that puts it in context, explains stereotypes, etc. the likelihood of this I think is small. Teachers have a limited amount of time to cover their material, especially in grammar and highschools. Rather than to engage in book banning or censorship of Huck Finn, maybe it’s just time for those who make decisions about curricula to consider alternatives that validate/explain the African American experience without having it presented by whites. For example, if the word N is used by a black author (Such as Richard Wright in Native Son) to describe his/ her experience, the presence of the word itself would not be problematic and there would not be a call to eliminate it from the book. Context and power relations I think are important.

  4. I like this Arthur,

    We have a similar issue in London today wih the use of “Black” or “black” when talking about ethnicity, however the same discussion is not happening by the same people around “White” or “white” – and there is no mention at all about brown/Brown.

    Similarly there is a discussion about the use of African or black/Black. Many West Indians and people of African-West Indian heritage prefer the use of Black. Africans in Britain (with the exception fo the Somalis) are happy with African but not Black. However, there is a group of West Africans who reject the use of Africans for Afrikaaners, East African Asians, and North Africans. Quized on this they see African as equalling Black-skinned. They also see this colouring as the only true representation of Africaness.

    I have felt the need to challenge these people on several occasions by asking if Obama is not 50% European, and if I have more rights than him to Africaness.

    We are still working through this, but at least we are all talking!

    • If you are asking whether words in and of themselves are moral, the answer is no. They may be used in hateful and hurtful ways; that makes them unethical. They may also be used playful or neutrally, in which case morality has nothing to do with their use.
      Of course, certain families or societies may have prohibition around word usage. But this is a matter of social convention, not ethics.

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