Ban the N-Word?

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 Huckleberry_Finn_bookFinn 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.”

(For my thoughts on the issue of African American exclusion from the economic and social mainstream of American life — largely due to policies put in place by so-called liberal 20th-century administrations — I invite you to have a look at:

About Thomas J. Hubschman

Thomas J. Hubschman is the author of Look at Me Now, My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird, Billy Boy, Father Walther’s Temptation, The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories and three science fiction novels. His work has appeared in New York Press, The Antigonish Review, Eclectica, The Blue Moon Review and many other publications. Two of his short stories were broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Posted on February 3, 2014, in Social Issues and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I don’t know if you still get notifications when people respond to old posts like this, but here goes:
    I don’t understand this article, and I didn’t understand the one you wrote before this.
    You speak of ‘flagrant assaults on traditional morality’ as if it’s a bad thing. Are you saying that the people who are upset about the use of the n-word should be upset about this, too? I’m not American, but as far as I understand, the people who dislike the n-word are people who also dislike ‘traditional morality’. Is that not the case?
    Do you personally believe that the seditious material in the book is morally wrong, or did you point it out because you think other people might/should believe it’s wrong?
    I hope you find the time to respond to this at some point. I can honestly say that it is only my own curiousity that made me ask these (very direct) questions, as I am not a student of anything related to literature. I found this because my girlfriends sister had to write an analysis of BAN HUCKLEBERRY FINN, which she will have finished by the point you’ve (hopefully) responded to this.

    Kind regards

  2. Thanks very much, Emil, for taking the time to respond to this posting. While there are many comments on the prior posting to this one (“Ban Huckleberry Finn — Again!”), you seem to be the only one to have commented on this one.

    If I understand you correctly, your questions arise from my using the ploy of pretending to be in favor in that earlier article of a position I am actually trying to undermine.

    To quote myself:

    “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.”

    Huck has to violate his conscience (a socially-constructed morality in this case, i.e. that a slave is someone’s property) in order to help Jim the slave to escape. This amounts in Huck’s mind to a grave crime and a sin for which he will have to pay with hellfire. The reader, of course, is meant to see his act as heroic, morality on the highest level.

    I call his action seditious and against “traditional” morality because that was what it amounted to in that environment. He was undermining the essential economic and social mores of the slave-holding South by helping Jim to escape. Slavery there was moral, even God-approved.

    The obsession today with the N-word is a distraction, in my eyes, from the serious issue raised in the novel: that one’s conscience can insist on one’s doing a very evil thing, namely cooperating with a system like chattel slavery. I try to make my point, as I say, by posing as someone who is shocked by the book’s advocacy of resisting accepted morality.

    I hope this clarifies my intentions somewhat. I’d be interested to hear if I have succeeded for you.

    Again, thank you for posting your comments.

    • I really appreciate you taking your time in spelling this out for me. Thank you.

      The last paragraph of your reply is what made it all click.

      What really had me confused was me not wholly understanding the concept of conscience. I didn’t consider that one could disagree with their own conscience until I remembered myself doing so plenty of times.

      There are still a few things about conscience I’m not completely sure of. Would you say that the ‘thing’ that made Huck act against his own conscience is just a different part of his conscience? I’m not entirely sure how to describe this properly, but I’ll try:
      Let’s say there are two ‘parts’ of Huck. One part which is the conscience that’s built upon the socially constructed morality of his surroundings and one part that makes him go against that.
      I think what I’m trying to ask is this: If you wouldn’t call it conscience, what would you call it then?

      Just as you repeated yourself at the end of your reply, so will I. Thank you for writing such a thorough explanation. I’ve never had the opportunity to question the author of an article before, so I find this really cool.

  3. I didn’t mention it before, but your initial comments got me thinking about the very question you now bring up: What is conscience? Can it be divided and in that sense be in conflict with itself?

    I think you would agree that society plays a big part in our ideas of right and wrong. It’s a lazy habit here in the US to always use the Nazi period as a reference point for issues like this (lack of historical knowledge generally in this nation, which is why I write a lot about topics like “race” and American genocides as a corrective to that ignorance). I have read some about the Nazi and Stalinist periods, which were totalitarian — meaning they didn’t just want to keep everyone strictly in line, they wanted to control everyone’s thoughts, and largely succeeded. The examples of individuals performing acts that under other circumstances they would have shunned are documented. I found it interesting to read in one scholar’s work that ordinary soldiers and police were _expected_ to find such duties abhorrent; otherwise they wouldn’t be human. But their greater duty to humankind (race-purity, cooperating with evolution as the Nazis saw it) required that they do so.

    Also, in the Soviet Union under Stalin, I have read that when officials in the party were accused, falsely, of corruption or some other crime, they could go to their deaths willingly because they believed so deeply in the wisdom of the party that their sacrifice was a matter of cooperating with historical necessity, i.e the achievement of true communism one day.

    There is a notion in religion as well of “forming one’s conscience,” i.e. doing what a superior tells you is the right thing to do, overriding what your personal conscience is telling you.

    I think one could make the case that when the SS man murdered civilians and the apparatchik denounced himself as a traitor they were both following a kind of conscience. “Forming their conscience,” you could say, the one that says we should obey rightful authority. That’s what Huck, to his credit, was unable to do. And that’s why I think those passages in the novel are among the great moments in literature.

    Our traditional idea of conscience is that it is an inborn thing, something we can always fall back on no matter how bad the norms of the society we live in. Huck seems to be falling back on this innate conscience, i.e. the one that everyone has whether or not they believe a God endowed them with it.

    I’ve also come across an idea that there are different kinds of morality: primary and secondary. According to this notion everyone (everyone sane, I think we could add) knows primary morality: Don’t poison the water supply, don’t go to bed with your mother, etc. Clever political or religious leaders mix in another, secondary morality — no dancing, no alcohol, no “unclean” food, etc. — so that the morality we’re supposedly born with gets mixed up with this other, completely arbitrary one.

    The short answer, Emil, is I don’t know the answer. I do, though, believe in something we could call human nature. I write fiction primarily, largely because I think art is about as close as we can come to understanding anything about these matters, not as absolutes or sureties but as a kind of working blueprint. Art deals with the unchanging human being. You can find a teenager in Euripides thinking and talking just like a teenager today, and of course you can find the same human emotions, moral quandries, etc. going all the way back to the epic Gilgamesh.

    But I also must add that I personally don’t have a problem with not having a definitive answer to issues like this. If someone wanted to do a caricature of someone like me, they would simply draw someone with a question mark in the bubble over his head. I used to feel this was a bad thing, a sign of immaturity. Now, though, I accept it as simply how I am, and maybe even a good thing. It’s what keeps me reading books that stand accepted truths, especially accepted history, on their heads. My impression is repeatedly that the true narrative is almost always not what we were taught in school or in the media, at least not in the US.

    But I ramble. Let me say again how much I appreciate your careful reading of what I wrote in those blog postings and the sharp questions you’ve raised. You’ve made me think more carefully about all this, and I will no doubt keep doing so for a while.

    Keep in touch.

  1. Pingback: BAN HUCKLEBERRY FINN (AGAIN)! | The Writer's Treehut

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