Ban the N-Word?
Posted by Thomas J. Hubschman
Easily the most accessed post on this blog over the past year has been “BAN HUCKLEBERRY FINN (AGAIN)!” Most of the hits have come by way of Google, enough so that the link there to this blog posting shows up on the first or second search page, depending on what wording you use. I suspect these searches are students trolling for material to use in term papers. Even so, if they actually read the posting they may be exposed to a different take on the novel, expressed as mock outrage: that Huckleberry Finn should be banned not because it’s use of an offensive word but because it preaches moral and social sedition. And, who knows? They might actually start thinking for themselves.
I wrote this piece before the new edition of the novel came out in which the word “nigger” has been changed to “slave.” The N-word, as it is now known, is problematic and certainly controversial. But one thing it is not is out of use. I hear it spoken all the time, and not just spoken by African Americans. White kids refer to each other as “nigger,” with no offense or even racial reference intended. African Americans refer to each other using the word in a benign, even affectionate way. I’ve even heard one person use it to refer to his automobile: “The nigger wouldn’t start!” And, of course, and all too frequently, people use it as an insult or as a slur.
The difference between those who take offense at its use and those who use the word freely and without any offense intended seems largely to be one of generation. Two African American friends of mine of a certain age both bristle at the reference to the word, while their children’s generation use it blithely as if it meant nothing more objectionable than “guy” or “dude.”
But the point of my article is that getting into a wax about the N-word misses the real social and political bombs in Huckleberry Finn: Huck’s deliberate and well-thought-out choice to violate his conscience and help the slave Jim escape, thus willingly damning himself to hell by doing what he clearly recognizes is the wrong decision; and an episode in the novel that denigrates the character of the army, any army. Unless I am the first person to notice these two flagrant assaults on traditional morality, the fuss about the N-word can almost seem like an attempt to divert attention away from more serious issues within the book.
But I am neither original nor are the folk upset with the use of the N-word in the book that thoughtful. Objecting to the N-word is an easy way to look and feel morally upright without having to spend precious time or calories (the brain uses 30% of what we eat) on anything more than recycling someone else’s thoughts. Never mind what I said above about the contradictory ways the word is expressed and received by people in the same family. What about the way it was used in the South during the antebellum period in which the novel is set? What did it mean to the people who spoke it then in that place? Could Twain have used some other word without sacrificing verisimilitude? Was he too dense or too uncaring to do so?
There are lots of things wrong with this novel plot-wise and in other ways. Great novels of the past are rife with faults, largely caused by authors’ laziness, bad taste and carelessness, as V.S. Pritchett points out in his essay on Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. Those books are nevertheless great works of art. More recent novels by comparison, well-crafted and meticulously edited, are flawless as literary artifacts but rarely rise above the mediocre as literature. I suspect Twain gave serious thought to what he was doing when he let Huck Finn and the other characters speak the words real people used. About that he was not careless or lazy. Nor was he tasteless. And banning words, like banning books, is not a good idea. Nor is it effective except to make readers, especially young readers — those delicate souls the banners are trying to protect — eager to look up the naughty word for themselves.
Meanwhile, I suggest you read or reread the novel (it wasn’t until my third reading that I saw the bombshells I mentioned above, so color me dim), in the original. And, then, “discuss.”