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January 17th, 2011
The bowdlerizing of Huckleberry Finn

Freethought San Marcos: A column

A recent commentary by Leonard Pitts in the Miami Herald explained a significant problem with publication of a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The new edition removes all use of the words “nigger” and “Injun,” substituting less offensive words. In Pitts’s view, the scrubbing of these words robbed the novel of its authenticity by ignoring Twain’s purpose in using the language that he chose and ignoring the social, cultural, and historical context in which the novel takes place.

Pitts explains, “Huck Finn is a funny, subversive story about a runaway white boy who comes to locate the humanity in a runaway black man and, in the process, vindicates his own.” I’ve always had a similar view of the novel, but it never occurred to me until reading Pitts’s words that I had had an experience similar to Huck’s, of becoming aware of another’s humanity, an experience shared by many others and one that may be universal.

I lived in Vidor, Texas, a rural community with a well-deserved reputation for racism, until I was four years old, when my family moved to the oil refinery town of Port Arthur. When I was seven, my parents, both of whom worked at refineries (my father as a machinist, my mother as an RN), hired a black woman to look after me and my younger brother. During the summer that I was ten years old, I had many serious discussions with her about the ways of the world, especially about race relations and how African-Americans had been treated throughout the south since the beginning of this country.

My guess is that Lutricia Valore was about 25 years old in 1955. We called her by her nickname, Lou. The culture at that time in the south permitted even young children to address black women by their first name or whatever other informal name might apply. Lou cooked our food, cleaned our house, supervised our play, and took care of us when we had an accident or were sick. She was my first sociology and history teacher. She told me about slavery. About having to sit in the back of the bus. About “separate but equal” schools. About being mistreated and disrespected by many whites. About segregation. About the slums in which she and her two children and husband lived. About the frequent humiliation she felt.

After reading Leonard Pitts’s words, I realized that Lou had transformed herself in my child’s eyes from the hired help to a person with fears, concerns, problems, and joys common to all human beings. She was my caretaker and became my friend. When she told me about how she was treated, I reacted first with disbelief that such a kind, decent person would be treated so badly. Then it made me angry. I wanted to do something about it, not recognizing that ten-year-old children can’t rectify society’s wrongs. I started looking around to see if I could find any of the circumstances she had described. I did not have to look far.

When I observed the city buses going down the street, I saw that all the blacks were in the back and the whites were in the front. When I went to the Weingarten grocery store with my mother, I saw the water fountains, side by side, one marked “Whites only,” and the other marked “Colored.” In my first public rebellion to the established order, I decided to drink from the “Colored” fountain to see if the water tasted different from that in the “Whites only” fountain. I knew that my action violated accepted custom, but I did it anyway, and no one complained. I continued drinking from that fountain as long as my family shopped at that store. Later, when I rode the city buses to junior high school, I purposely sat in the back.

As a result of what I had learned from Lou, I continued my rebellion through the years by arguing about the nature of slavery with a junior high school history teacher and about job discrimination with a Sunday school teacher who did not want blacks working at the refinery because they would compete with him for jobs, an unrecognized acknowledgement that blacks could be as qualified as he to do the same work.

Huck recognized Jim as a person of value because he came to know him at a basic human level. He saw that Jim had to make decisions about right and wrong, good and bad, fair and unfair just as he did.

Both Jim and Huck were seeking freedom. To each one, freedom meant something slightly different, just as it means different things for different people all over the globe. And the novel deals with other human problems as well, including lying, deceit, cruelty, moral values, the role of family in a person’s life (Did Huck and Jim become a family?), selfishness, and hypocrisy.

All of these human issues are important for both children and adults to figure out for themselves. If a novel set shortly before the Civil War can help us discuss these issues, it has to be of value. If we take away from it its context, we rob it of some of that value as an educational tool. If some people are offended by the words common to the period and those words are censored, what does that take from the novel? For one thing, it blunts the razor-sharp edge of Twain’s depiction of racism in America.

We haven’t been able to have a broad, serious discussion about race and race relations in the 125 years since Huckleberry Finn was published. After all, we are still arguing about the reasons for the Civil War, in the face of documentary evidence that slavery and race were at its heart. Now, we learn that a production of the play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by the late, widely respected African-American playwright August Wilson is being forbidden by the superintendent of schools in Waterbury, Connecticut, because it contains the word “nigger” in several places. Removing offensive words from the pages of Huckleberry Finn or any other literary work will make that important discussion about race less likely, and if our children read such works in a bowdlerized form, there will be no reason for them to even confront what such language is all about.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos

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4 thoughts on “The bowdlerizing of Huckleberry Finn

  1. I agree. It is a work of historical and cultural significance and altering it would be Orwellian to say the least.

  2. I also agree. Orwellian is an excellent way to put it. Come on. It’s our past those words are offensive but they are real and should not be altered. While most people I know will no longer use those words I still run into there use.

    There are plenty of folks still using these offensive terms for many ethnic groups…we need to understand the ugliness of them and how the dehumanize us all. Taking them from our literature will only hurt that effort.

  3. Most people may no longer use those words, but some do, and there are certainly modern-day equivalents with other populations.

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