Advocate editorial board opinion: Censorship is not solution to racism

By the Advocate Editorial Board
April 18, 2011 at 5:04 p.m.
Updated April 17, 2011 at 11:18 p.m.

Racism, in our opinion, is among the most negative behaviors at work in our imperfect world.

We view censorship in much the same way.

These two seemingly unconnected concepts have become entangled within the pages of Mark Twain's popular 19th century novel, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

A Twain scholar has recently published a sanitized version of the novel, one which removes any reference to the infamous "N"-word that appears 219 times in the original manuscript.

The word is most often used as a nickname for Huck's friend and fellow adventurer Jim, who in the new publication is tagged as "Slave Jim," ostensibly to make the classic novel more accessible to modern students.

This is a noble motive, to be sure. The scholar, Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University, indicates he has heard from numerous teachers that the presence of the offensive word has made it difficult to teach in the modern classroom.

"I'm circumventing censorship," said Gribben in an article that appeared in Sunday's Advocate. "(The revised version of Huck Finn) is an optional addition for teachers that are not allowed to use or do not feel comfortable teaching the older version."

But, does this seemingly minor edit irrevocably change Huck Finn in ways that devalue the author's actual work? Does the removal of the admittedly profane "N"-word actually change the text in such a way that it loses its importance as literature?

We believe it does.

Consider this point of view:

"'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' is, unquestionably, a book about slavery and the humanity of slaves," writes Paul Schied in the Jan. 8 edition of Harvard Political Review.

"(Jim), despite his derogatory epithet, is the hero of the novel, even more so than the title character. He is a vibrant testament to the compassion and courage of slaves and free blacks, a living rebuke to the oppression and dehumanization of blacks in the antebellum South," Schied writes.

"The contradiction between the term - so much a part of the way the world views Jim that it is part of his very name - and Jim's character is Twain's critical master stroke," Schied concludes.

We strongly agree and are pleased to learn that many area teachers continue to teach the original version of the novel in their literature courses, despite the controversy.

Racism, to be sure, is a sinister human behavior. But, we contend, censorship can have an equally insidious impact on our society at large.

It's far better, we believe, to study the notorious word's usage in the context of Twain's novel - despite its unacceptability in polite conversation - in order to mitigate the spread of the racist sentiment it embodies.

We recognize the presence of the "N"-word in the novel represents a challenge for today's teacher. We applaud educators who choose to teach the author's intent rather than shy away from the controversy.

This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.



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