Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What are words for

"I saw King Lear yesterday. Mrs. Siddons as Goneril. The idiots had given it a happy ending."

"That will not last. The Great Stories will always return to their original forms."
               - Hob Gaddling, in conversation with Dream of the Endless. "Men of Good Fortune," written by Neil Gaiman

I am going to use some words in this post that are ugly and offensive. I do not believe they belong in my everyday conversation. They do, however, belong here.

NewSouth Books has announced they will be publishing a new edition of Mark Twain's classic, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The edition, edited in a cowardly fashion by Alan Gribben, will replace the word "nigger" with "slave" and will rename "Injun Joe" as "Indian Joe." In an interview, Professor Gribben (who heads the English Department at Auburn University, a fact I will state without comment) said he made this choice because, "After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable."

Yes. Because obviously, academia's response to literature that makes people uncomfortable ought to be bowdlerization. Maybe Gribben can age up Lolita while he's at it.

Twain's use of the word "nigger" makes people uncomfortable. I'm fine with that. It should make people uncomfortable to hear that word. We should be uncomfortable with America's racist history. Perhaps, people are even more uncomfortable with it because Twain is one of our literary heros. A smart guy who wrote great books, and we don't like thinking that smart guys who write great books can be flawed.

But literature isn't necessarily meant to make us feel comfortable. The literature we teach perhaps even less so. How can anyone learn anything if they are not challenged, pushed outside of their comfort zones, made to confront things that are ugly, and terrifying, and that they would be far happier not thinking about? When I put together a syllabus, I think about texts that will make my students learn, not books that will pat them on the head and tell them they are smart and and morally superior already.

And sure, maybe that's easy for me to say. I have always taught at the university level, where I have academic freedom, and I don't have to deal with book banners insisting that I not teach books that have ugly words in. But it is the responsibility of a teacher at any level to teach. To show people truth, even when it is ugly and uncomfortable and people call you bad names for doing so. Because you know what's really not acceptable, in any classroom? Censorship. Placating the book-banners. Covering things over so you don't have to have the difficult discussions.

Words matter. Even the ugly ones. We do not get to cavalierly unsay them.


  1. Great points. I'm going to tweet a link to this...

  2. By "In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable," they really mean, "We are too inept to turn this into an opportunity to teach that goes beyond what's written on the page." That's the true shame. I read Huck Finn in high school, with an (admittedly amazing) English teacher who had the skill and personality to be able to confront these sorts of things, put them in context, let the students feel uncomfortable (and express that), and contain it all in an open and safe discussion.

  3. I couldn't decide if I thought "not acceptable" was a reference to "we're too scared to teach it," or "we know the book banners will come after us, and we're too scared to stand up to them." But either way, the fact that no one will try to offer students the experience you had is wrong.