06 January 2011

Mark Twain, "Nigger" and Political Correctness...


I read with interest a story about a recent edition of the Mark Twain classic "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" being published by NewSouth Books in Alabama. NewSouth has decided after some consultation to replace the word "nigger" with "slave". This means that the 219 times that the word nigger once appeared now see the word slave used instead.

The consultation was nothing more than a suggestion from Dr Alan Gribben of Auburn University who after having taught Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer for many years, and who had always balked at using the word nigger when reading aloud passages from the books decided that the word slave would be more acceptable to young readers and those with an interest in reading Mark Twain's works.

It appears that Dr Gribben believes that the reason Twain's books are not taught anymore is because of concerns over the use of the racial epithet. He believes that the sanitised version is more likely to find its way back onto reading lists.

The removal of the word nigger from the most recent edition is certainly going to give rise to debate on all manner of issues, particularly censorship and political correctness. The decision is one of censorship. Despite the intention, the changing of the words, "injun" was replaced with "indian", by its very nature changes the context of the stories.

The reality was that prevailing attitudes in the 19th century when Twain was writing was one where nigger and injun were acceptable terms. The fact that times have changed and the words are no longer acceptable in a general sense does not equate to a need to remove them from the original text. To the contrary, the fact that they remain provide an excellent "teaching" opportunity to discuss racism and the changing attitudes towards it.

I do wonder how we can encourage children to appreciate literary classics and to appreciate literature in a more general sense if we feel the need to censor it and make it "suitable" for certain readers. I wonder whether we should shy away from controversy or should we embrace it. Why not use the controversy as a teaching moment that can provide a "lights on" moment for people as they finally join all the dots and gain a deeper appreciation of the work, the author, and the intent.

Sadly, this was not the first attempt to be politically correct (Florence Kate Upton and her original creation of the Golliwog and Enid Blyton and Golliwogs) with a piece of classic literature and it is unlikely to be the last.

Ho hum...

9 comments:

pj said...

The problem of this kind of revisionism is that the meaning and imagery of language gets lost within a sludge of generic terms and dead metaphors. If one is attempting to be deliberately vague or unsure of ones topic then rhis is probably the way to go. I would imagine though that mark twain gave carefull consideration to most every word he wrote and if he meant to say slave he certainly would have done so.

One wonders how the good doctor would approach othello?

Will there be a non-smoking version of lord of the rings?

the mind boggles

H. Nizam said...

Hi Rob,
For us the words "nigger" and "Injuns" would not have a negative meaning. But for the black people and Indians in the USA those words would hurt them.
Maybe it is similar to the use of the word "Bule" here.
I know some friends who are annoyed when they are called "Bule"
Actually the word doesn't mean bad here.

http://multibrand.biz

Rob Baiton said...

@ PJ...

I tend to agree. I reckon that if Twain had of wanted to use "slave" he would of. The fact that he did not can be viewed a number of ways and therein lies the teaching moments for me.

@ Harry...

I disagree.

I think that the words have very specific meanings that would be translatable into Indonesian. I would agree that there would be a great many Indonesians who on first hearing the words would be unfamiliar with their meaning and the negative connotations.

The point though is not that ignorance makes it more acceptable in certain circumstances, is it?

Similar and different at the same time. The word "bule" clearly has racist connotations at its point of origin. The fact that most Indonesians are unaware of that does not mean that it does not exist.

It is interesting though that an overtly racist word can, over time, be viewed as just being a generalised and generic way of referring to "white" expatriates sans any racist overtones.

Yet again, personal experience tells me that a whole lot more Indonesians are familiar with the understanding that bule can be derogatory and a racial epithet. Having lived in Indonesia for a reasonably long time I think I am qualified to make this assessment :)

Anonymous said...

Did I miss something here??

Similar and different at the same time. The word "bule" clearly has racist connotations at its point of origin. The fact that most Indonesians are unaware of that does not mean that it does not exist.

I was told (wrongly?) that bule sort of meant faded. Or not full coloured eg like sawo matang.

What do you know of the etymological origins of the word?

Rob Baiton said...

@ Anonymous...

Yeah, you did miss something if you did not know that "bule" has racist connotations.

Bule in fact singles out people for being "white" although Indonesians will tell you that the correct definition is one that leans towards "albino". Irrespective of that debate, the word clearly identifies a certain group of people based on the colour of their skin. So, at that very basic level it has racist connotations unless of course one does not subscribe to the idea of "blackie" and "choc" and "slope" having racist undertones.

Take "Bule Gila" for example. A loose translation is "Crazy White People". How do you reckon one would go trying to sell a program called "Crazy Black People" or "Crazy Yellow People" in an Australian or US television market?

If you want to know the etymological origins of the word type it into Google. Another good source is Jakartass. I know it is a word that bothers him a great deal. Check out his blog at jakartass.net.

Enjoy your search ;)

Anonymous said...

thanks

Anon

I found

Expatriates' anger about the term bule might therefore be a sign of their discomfort with being 'racially deviant', a label which they are not used to, and feel they don't deserve.

Rob Baiton said...

@ Anonymous...

Yes, that was one of the ones I figured you might find. There are a few others that explore the issue in more detail :)

derlehrer said...

Two questions:
1) Did Twain's heirs consent to the changes in spite of copyright?
2) Do you think Margaret Mitchell will be the next victim?

Rob Baiton said...

@ Derlehrer...

Thanks for dropping by and posing two questions. Also, thanks for following. I do not have a lot of followers compared to some, so each new follower is appreciated.

To the substance.

1. To be honest I am not sure. I have had a bit of a look around and have not found anything to suggest one way or the other that they are in favour of the changes or not.

2. Interesting question. I would imagine it to be wholly within the realm of possibility. The type of literary revisionism that NewSouth Books is undertaking here could be applied to a classic like "Gone With The Wind".

Perhaps the more important question to ask ourselves is whether this type of literary revisionism is really beneficial in the sense of literary criticism.

As others have noted Twain would have considered his words carefully and chosen those words with purpose in mind. Who are we to now go back and sanitise that work?

Do we start burning works that are no longer politically correct and that are not salvageable through censorship?

The mind boggles.