American History Requires Study, not Plastic Surgery

The N-word is perhaps the most powerful word in the English language. It carries 400 years of brutal American history that can strike with the force of a lash.

Nice people don’t say it. F-bombs are soggy firecrackers compared to the explosive power of…well, you know.

So it’s easy to see why an educator and publisher in Alabama would choose to delete the word from a new edition of Huckleberry Finn, substituting “slave” in its stead.

Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University, said he was concerned Huck Finn had all but disappeared from high school reading lists–largely because of objections to That Word–and he was trying to put out an edition that would be more acceptable to school officials.

“I am by no means sanitizing Mark Twain,” said Gribben, as the predictable waves of criticism began to roll over him. “I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone.”

With sympathy for Mr. Gribben, I happen to think that Mark Twain is our greatest writer and Huckleberry Finn his greatest book. But I would not relish the thought of standing before a high school class of white, African-American, Latino, and Asian kids and reading aloud passages that contained That Word.

And it would be hard to pick a passage that did not contain it. It is sprinkled throughout the book as copiously as commas, more than 200 times. You can teach around that, I suppose, but that’s hard duty.

But isn’t that why they pay high school teachers the big bucks?

OK, so maybe they don’t make big bucks. They do, however, get paid. And if a teacher can’t put the word in its proper context–as an artifact of another time–then he or she shouldn’t teach it.

One of Twain’s great contributions to our literature was that he wrote the way people actually talked. The N-word is the way they talked back then.

I suppose, judged by current standards, Twain was a racist. But by the standards of the time, he was not. He was what passed for a liberal in the South, and the thrust of his book is that whites and blacks share a common humanity that renders slavery an abomination.

Substituting “slave” for the N-word, as the new edition does, robs the book of much of its juice. It’s the literary equivalent of putting a bra on the Venus de Milo.

It’s a great book. Teach it by all means, but teach it well. And if you can’t–don’t.

The new Republican Congress faced a somewhat similar challenge as it began its work and, of course, failed it.

The Republican leadership in the House decided it would be a good idea to begin the session by reading the Constitution out loud, alternating Republicans and Democrats as readers. You would think that would be a fairly straightforward thing, right?

Wrong. One Republican freshman, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, failed to attend the swearing-in ceremony that morning, preferring to attend a fund-raiser instead. So while he was allowed to read a piece of the Constitution, he wasn’t really a member of the House.

House Speaker John Boehner, ironically, is on record revealing how weak a grasp he’s got on the Constitution. At a tea party rally in November 2009, he waved a copy of the Constitution and pledged to “stand here with our founding fathers, who wrote in the preamble ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” A crowd-pleasing moment, but that line happens to be in the Declaration of Independence.

Plus, during the House recital in January, GOP leaders deleted the part of the text that counted slaves as three-fifths of real (white) people. How sensitive.

Despite its role as a living document, the Constitution–like Huckleberry Finn–is in many ways a reflection of its time.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. www.otherwords.org