Monday, January 10, 2011

Language Matters

Contrary to what Professor Alan Gribben thinks, Americans understand that Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn over a hundred years ago when slavery was fresh in the nation's the mind and an entire race was beginning the long, arduous journey from slavery into freedom. It is fiction to think that we are not smart enough to know that the word “nigger” makes us uncomfortable. At the same time, it is fact that the word “nigger” is routinely used in African-American communities today.

Because of that schizophrenic affectation, Professor Alan Gribben has decided that children must be shielded from the word all together, and has replaced it with “slave” in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. First of all, the words are not synonymous. Secondly,  Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, writing from a 19th century perspective, was living during a time when the use of “nigger” was commonplace and unquestioned. He was not Nostradamus, able to see into the future and predict political correctness. He wrote what he saw, heard, and experienced. He did not whitewash the relationship between Huck and Jim; Jim's status as a runaway slave is central to the novel. Huck struggles with what to do and his decision not to betray Jim is radical for its time. Changing the language damages the author’s intent; Twain wrote what he meant and meant what he wrote. There is no apologia. His carefully constructed novel withstands the test of time. Were he alive today, he would be fuming that this affront is tantamount to literary treason.

Exactly what lesson are you teaching the children, anyway? That it’s okay to change the facts of history if they’re too hard to digest? Do that, and you are denying kids an overview of the growth of a nation still in search of philosophical maturity. Change the words, and you arrest their development as human beings.
Mr. Clemens - c. 1884

To change the word “nigger” to “slave” is to change the voice of the novel itself; it alters its place in time, and implies that Americans are too stupid to understand the difference between life 1874, when the novel was published, and life in 2011.

And if you think that, you probably don’t like the idea of a rickety ol’ raft on the river. Is it okay, then, to call it a pontoon or a two-man-catamaran?   By the way, how ‘bout we tell children we sent Japanese-Americans to summer camp so they could go live away from the city’s heat and have fun growing vegetables during World War II?  You could also say that the German’s sent the Jews to culture camp, but you may be at a loss to explain what happened to Anne Frank after the Gestapo paid a social call on the secret annex.

If you are teaching kids that they’re too stupid to understand the notion of context, you end up creating fiction via fiction. The historical perspective is lost, and at the same time, the student is absolved of the need to comprehend the depth and breadth of societal change.

If you subscribe to this theory of education, you are an active participant in the dumbing down of America. Period. End of discussion.

Mark Twain's Tip o'the Week
Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it.

Wifely Person’s Tip o’the Week
If the kid is too young to understand the use of a word in context,
the kid is too young to read the book.


  1. It's about time we re-write Shakespeare so that today's students don't have to struggle with such silly declarations as "what light through yonder window breaks". Surely Shakespeare would appreciate our help, just as Clemens would feel so much better to know that we have found a way to modify his words to ensure no one is offended.