It was recently announced that the United States would be releasing a new version of Huckleberry Finn that will omit the words nigger and injun. Naturally, this decision is controversial. When you start down the path of open and blatant censorship, the results are never good. It doesn’t matter what the intentions are. When a small, but vocal, group are allowed to decide what is good for everyone, disastrous results always follow.
The word occurs more than 200 times in Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, and its 1876 precursor, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which tell the story of the boys’ adventures along the Mississippi river in the mid-19th century. In the new edition, the word will be replaced in each instance by “slave”. The word “injun” will also be replaced in the text.
Defenders of this particular censorship of Huckleberry Finn state that this censored version is intended for younger audiences. If you truly believe that child cannot handle swear words or a given topic, then it should probably not be read to them. They will not be able to grasp the historical context or understand the greater meaning of the novel.
it’s exactly that vitriol and its unacceptable nature that Twain intended to capture in the book as it stands. Perhaps this is not a book for younger readers. Perhaps it is a book that needs careful handling by teachers at high school and even university level as they put it in its larger discursive context, explain how the irony works, and the enormous harm that racist language can do. But to tamper with the author’s words because of the sensibilities of present-day readers is unacceptable. The minute you do this, the minute this stops being the book that Twain wrote.
While parents may want their children to read and enjoy Huck Finn, it simply isn’t possible with younger children. They know that nigger is a bad word, but they don’t know why. They may see famous people use the word and not understand why it is permissible for some, but prohibited for others. If a child cannot grasp this, then how are they going to understand the time period, race relations, and that Huck Finn is often said to be anti-racist? If a parent wants a child to enjoy Huck Finn, they should wait until they are older to read it.
Children are also exposed to so many words and outside influences that censoring a single book becomes a ridiculous notion. Unless you keep your child locked in a closet, you can’t censor the world from them. They hear the word nigger, along with a plethora of other swear words on a a daily basis. It is better to educate them on these words than attempt to censor them out of existence. It is an impossible task that only leaves the child resentful.
When you censor a speech, a book, or a movie, you take away its sense of meaning and its purpose. The author chose these particular words for s specific reason. It may be to evoke an emotion. It may be to illustrate a point. It wasn’t put there on accident. We should give the author the befedit of the doubt, knowing that the words are written just as the author intended. To censor any part is to censor the whole.
Language counts here. As Twain himself said: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
When we censor text and video, we are allowing someone else to decide what is acceptable. We are saying that we are not capable of deciding right from wrong. We cannot, and should not, ever allow some bureaucratic entity decide the difference. Just as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, what words a person finds acceptable, another finds abhorrent. It is the individual’s responsibility to know for themselves what they enjoy.
Mark Twain did not believe in censorship. He felt that anything written should stand on its own merits. If enough people believe that a book is not worth the paper it’s printed on, they will reject it and it will disappear for lack of profit. If, however, a book is deemed to have great value, it will stay the course of time. Huckleberry Finn is over 100 years old and has been enjoyed by millions with nigger and injun included. That should be all there is to say. Censorship of Huckleberry Finn of any kind has never been necessary and never will be.