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We’ve got our first official race flap of 2011—and it involves something published in 1884. Folks have long been freaked out by the 200-plus times Mark Twain used the word “nigger” in his classic novel “Huckleberry Finn,” and as a consequence the book is rarely taught in high school these days (or so I’m told; that’s where I first encountered it decades ago). So a well-meaning Auburn University scholar named Alan Gribben has said, enough already, let’s just take the offending words out. Gribben has adapted the novel for New South Books, which announced this week it will release a version in which “nigger” is swapped out for “slave”; “injun” is scrubbed as well. The new version will be published in a companion volume with “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

People are pissed, of course.

Here’s what Gribben told Publisher’s Weekly:

“This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind,” said Gribben, speaking from his office at Auburn University at Montgomery, where he’s spent most of the past 20 years heading the English department. “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

[snip]

“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.” Gribben became determined to offer an alternative for grade school classrooms and “general readers” that would allow them to appreciate and enjoy all the book has to offer. “For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” he said.

But Gribben’s effort to make the book teachable has, ironically, papered over the relevant lesson. The tragedy, as Melissa Harris-Perry articulates on the “Countdown” clip below, is not that the word “nigger” appears in the text, but that we think it’s not appropriate to discuss our nation’s racism honestly until college. It’s abstinence-only education for race. It’s also indicative of a culture that has reduced racism to words, rather than ideas and actions. Elon James White puts it well at Salon:

Our society has a problem speaking truth about our attitudes toward race. When the book “Game Change,” for example, included comments by Harry Reid saying that Obama could win the presidency because he was a “light-skinned Negro with no negro dialect unless he chose to have one,” many people had a conniption because you’re just not allowed to “say” that. Was it true? Absolutely. Scientific studies have proven a bias — among blacks and whites — against dark-skinned people, but for a politician to state a truth about America and race was unacceptable.

Here’s Harris-Perry breaking down why Twain’s Jim needs to stay a “nigger.”

Read this online at http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/01/why_jim_needs_to_remain_huck_finns_nigger.html


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