I was watching CNN and heard some news that forced me to pause in my morning routine to give them my undivided attention. The publishers at NewSouth books are releasing a new edition of Mark Twain’s literature that omits “nigger.” After visiting NewSouth’s website and reading the new edition’s Introduction, I learned that the company will be releasing two of Twain’s most popular novels as one, entitled The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and are omitting the racially charged slurs “nigger” and “Injun,” which were aimed towards Blacks and Native Americans respectfully. Those words will be replaced with “slave” and “Indian.”
I find this to be EXTREMELY problematic. While Huckleberry Finn does mention nigger 200+ times, every “nigger” discussed in the novel is not a slave. There are free Black men in the storyline. By referring to a free man as a slave, it defeats the purpose of not calling him “nigger.” You are still not using the proper, non-offensive term (since that is the current goal of the editors). To keep this jaded momentum going, the publisher is also insisting on using the term “Indian” for the Native American, Joe, featured in Tom Sawyer. How soon America has chosen to forget the lies American history has fed us regarding Christopher Columbus? The fact that the twisted phenomenon of him “discovering” America, thinking he’d landed in India where he consequently referred to Native Americans as Indians, is still being perpetuated is disgusting.
Mark Twain wrote in the language of his times and because of his phenomenal details and lengthy descriptions, the reader is always able to transport themselves back to the late 19th century. It was while reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that I finally understood the implications of slavery-why it had been valuable for American industry and why it had been wrong. I also learned of the negative connotation that was associated with Blacks, even the free ones.
“But when they told me there was a state in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote again…And to see the coon way of that nigger-why, he wouldn’t give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out of the way. I says to people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?” -pg 42, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
My experience with race as a child was minimal. Growing up, the concept was not discussed in my family’s household. No attention was drawn to it. As a result when I looked at humanity, I saw people, not colors. Because of this type of racial education (or lack of it), I wasn’t aware of slavery, racism and prejudices and my group of girlfriends resembled a United Nations meeting.
In school this lack of racial education continued. History class carefully avoided the plight of the American Negro by way of harping on Johnny Appleseed and Christopher Columbus’ achievements. It wasn’t until I discovered the amazing world of books where I began educating myself on America’s prejudiced history. It began with Connie Porter’s portrayal of American slavery in Meet Addy: An American Girl, the story of a young slave girl who escaped freedom in the American Girl Collection. While this book gave me a gentle introduction to slavery’s harsh reality, it was Mark Twain’s storytelling that gave me the brutal honesty I was searching for.
With all of that being said, I find this to be yet another sad day in American history. Why must we find the need to rewrite our nation’s history in an effort to hide our shameful acts? We need the contextual stinging that some of those racial slurs can bring to remind us that 1) yes, it really was THAT bad and 2) we must NEVER return to that. While “nigger” and “Injun” can be a bit awkward to read/discuss, it’s a topic that is shied from too often and needs to quit being swept under a rug. Books such as Twain’s are also indicative of the progress that has been made as well as the obstacles we still face and must overcome.