New York, December 20, 1909. "S.L. Clemens." Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, aboard the Bermudian after a trip to Bermuda, four months before his death. 5x7 glass negative, George Grantham Bain Collection. Source: Shorpy

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” ― Ray Bradbury

BETWEEN THE LINES: About 18 months ago, a debate took place at a Canarsie elementary school over a book of poems, when parents objected to some content, such as an anti-war poem with a line that President Bush “loves war so much he gets an erection,” and another about a crack-addicted hooker performing lewd acts.

City Councilman Charles Barron, who wrote the forward to the 2006 collection — which was authored by his goddaughter, Tylibah Washington — defended the book, noting it “speaks to the experiences and struggles of inner city youth,” though he subsequently acknowledged portions of it might be inappropriate for pre-teens.

Nevertheless, in a follow-up, Barron — who is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for the newly-created 8th Congressional District seat — objected to editing the poetry book, yet he called for removing Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from classrooms because the “despicable N” word is used numerous times.

This argument subsequently resurfaced when a publisher issued a revised edition of Huck Finn and changed more than 200 mentions of the “N” word, plus a smaller number from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and replaced them with the word “slaves.” Other alterations included “Injun Joe” changed to “Indian Joe” and “half-breed” to “half-blood,” presumably to avoid an added chorus of disapproval from Native Americans in search of equal treatment.

When political correctness is used to alter celebrated works, which contain conventional language and attitudes at the time they were published, it’s deceptive and disgraceful, no matter how repugnant some might perceive them.

When Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were published, in 1885 and 1876 respectively, the “N” word was not necessarily uttered with malice, but rather out of habit. As a result, censoring the word today dilutes and misrepresents the original narratives.

Rather than revise the books, perhaps it would be more practical — and educational — to explain to students the context of the period when the words were written, so they could have a better understanding of slurs or other offensive content.

A Twain scholar opposed to the edits said: “The word is terrible and hurtful,” but noted that it “conveys the language and attitudes of Missouri in the 1840s” when laws were being passed in the South to deprive blacks of their civil rights.

Regardless, one of the basic lessons Huck Finn learns — and the novel teaches us — is that Jim, the runaway slave he befriends, is a man more than an object of servitude.

Alan Gribben, an eminent Twain scholar and Auburn University professor, edited the NewSouth Books edition of Huck Finn, which includes a 3,300-word foreword that explains his decision to censor the novel because teaching it made him uncomfortable.

If an extended essay was necessary to clarify and defend editorial choices, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea in the first place.

Who could possibly think the word “slave” is more suitable to African-Americans than the “N” word? The word “slave” was not even included in the U.S. Constitution, as blacks are merely referred to as “all other persons.”

Use of the racist slur has tapered off in some circles, except for those inherently racist or ignorant, as political correctness slowly demanded its exclusion. Regrettably — depending on your point of view — the “N” word is more commonly used in black youths’ street jargon. When they refer to each other with that word, it tends to demonstrate a kinship and perhaps removes the sting compared to when a white person utters it.

Even so, most adult African-Americans do not like the word, regardless of who utters it, and refrain from speaking it.

Though Barron wanted the “N” word removed from the Twain classics, he never made a similar request for the slur to be edited out of vintage rap records in which artists made what they felt was a valid social statement.

Should the defunct group NWA (N—– With Attitude) change its name to Slaves With Attitude?

What’s more, let’s hope the revisions in the Twain books don’t start a trend to tinker with film, theater and music classics.

Should movies like Gone with the Wind, In the Heat of the Night and others, also be censored? Can you imagine how substituting a specific word, which some genteel people tend to dislike, would alter the passion of Rhett Butler’s final comment to Scarlett O’Hara: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a darn”?

Should the Bible be edited to remove the word “God” to appease atheists? Then again, why would an atheist be reading the Bible?

The only constructive fallout from the Twain book edits would be if it spurred inquisitive children. A child’s inquiring mind can make a cat’s curiosity look blasé by comparison.  Often, when kids are cautioned to avoid something that’s not for their eyes or ears, their interest is aroused. Consequently, some would possibly seek the uncensored Huck Finn just to see what the fuss is all about, and then ask why the changes were made. Teachers and parents should be prepared to handle such questions from curious pupils.

Although Gribben may have intended to promote public amity, most scholars consider it sinful to alter a work of art that has become a classic — albeit periodically criticized — for well over a century, even to appease modern readers.

Censoring or revising classic literature to accommodate contemporary sensitivities makes as much sense as covering up works of art to conceal nudity that may offend some viewers.

Worst of all, politically correct edits interfere with the indispensable right of free speech and, as Ray Bradbury noted, it’s just another method of book burning.

This column is dedicated to the memory of Ray Bradbury, who died on June 5. Conformity, ignorance and censorship were key themes in his classic sci-fi novel, Fahrenheit 451.

Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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  • http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/ Ned Berke

    I can’t help but notice, Neil, that you yourself chose to substitute “N-word” or “N—–” rather than write it out, which itself is a concession to political correctness. Personally, I’ve always been bothered by this substitution. Not only is it cumbersome, but it’s really not a matter of political correctness – in that you don’t want to offend – but a matter of acknowledging that people are unable to understand context or intent. Which is not your fault, but it is a sad statement.

    • NSF

      A sad statement on our culture, indeed, but I chose not to spell out the N word (which I’ve used in columns I wrote years ago) this time, not for political correctness, but because I have grown to dislike it any form.  
      The same way I abhor any form of racist slurs aimed at Jews, Italians, Asians, Native Americans (i.e. the Tomahawk Chop), etc.

      • http://kibblesbits.wordpress.com/ Ann

        Thank you. People who use the phrase politically correct are usually just trying to rationalize poor manners. PC should really stand for polite conversation, because that is what it essentially comes down to. Being a well mannered person.

        • http://www.brucebrodinsky.com Bruce B

          I give you credit. Though political correctness is so pervasive, you’re the first one I’ve seen to actually stick up for it!

            In normal social intercourse, you’re right. Decent people would not engage someone in conversation they know will piss off the other person.

            Unfortunately, in the legal and political arena, it’s used to censor speech and writing of those who’s opinion is not “proper”, “correct”, etc.  This was not the intent of the 1st amendment.

  • http://twitter.com/nicktherat Nick the Rat

    Lol, i didn’t expect my comment to last long, but you deleted it because I said our educational system is run by N——. 

    All I can say is that the only people who get offended are people who deserve to be offended. If someone called me a bad name, id only take it personally if it was true.

    Our educational system is helping to keep humans ignorant and stuck in a fantasy world… which helps our government take advantage of us.

    • http://www.sheepsheadbites.com/ Ned Berke

      I sat there and mulled over the irony for a good few minutes. But, at the end of the day, even if I know you were just screwing around, it was a violation of our comment policy. I’m glad you came back and restated your point though.

  • http://www.flickr.com/knightmare6 Knightmare6

    Thick skin, society no longer has it.

  • levp

    “Then again, why would an atheist be reading the Bible?”

    Breaking news for Mr. Friedman:

    “In US, atheists know religion better than believers.”
    http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2010/0928/In-US-atheists-know-religion-better-than-believers.-Is-that-bad

    Agree with the rest of the article.

    • NSF

      Regardless of their religious expertise, atheists have not asked to remove the word “God” from the Bible. They likely prefer the Bible to be fined under Fiction.

      • levp

        True, that.

    • NSF

      That was a tongue in cheek remark, which obviously went over your head.Regardless of their religious expertise, atheists have not asked to remove the word “God” from the Bible. They likely prefer the Bible to be fined under Fiction.

      • levp

        You expect way too much from my sense of humor…

  • Arlene Herring

    Changing the word rewrites history, covers up the truth. 

  • http://www.brucebrodinsky.com Bruce B

    Charles Barron goes to the heart of the matter. I’d like to think he’s a lone kook, but he’s not. He believes in selected freedom of speech and expression, and his political cohorts will TELL you precisely what is allowed and what is not.

      If someone referred to President Obama and an erection (instead of Bush), there would be instant howling and censorship and probable prosecution under “hate crime” statutes. Substitute “Bush” for “Obama” and it’s okay. I’m sure nobody here was bothered by the reference in Neil’s article. Had the name read “Obama”, there would be post upon post how awful it was and should have been omitted.

      I hope the attempt by the left to censor all but their own works and opinions gradually disintegrates, but I’m afraid the pendulum continues to sway towards the Orwellian concept that “some are more equal than others”.

      Now we have the concept of the “N-word”. (I don’t use the real word because I don’t want to be assaulted, quite frankly).  We now have the concept that some people (rap starts, teenagers) can use the word, and some cannot.  I hope society provides me with some documentation as to what groups can say what words. I really need it, I’m losing track of the insane rules. A politically correct spreadsheet, with the horizontal column being the words, the vertical columns the various groups, should be created, what say you, Mr. Barron?

      Editting Huck Finn is just a literary crime. If the word is bothersome, don’t teach the book. And I agree with Knightmare6, how did American society get so thin-skinned and weak that we profess to fall apart at the use of the word?  I’ll tell you how. Being a victim pays these days, both in rights and money. Another sad statement.

    The 1st amendment should be close to absolute.  There should be almost no exceptions, and certainly no cherry-picking of who can and can’t say or write what.

    • http://www.brucebrodinsky.com Bruce B

      I forgot, I wanted to give the author of this article credit for bringing up such an important subject.

  • http://www.salwen.com/mtrace.html Info

    You
    say: 

     

    “Rather than revise the books, perhaps
    it would be more practical — and educational — to explain to students the
    context of the period when the words were written, so they could have a better
    understanding of slurs or other offensive content.”

    Well,
    la-dee-dah! Of course that would be better. And definitely more
    educational. 

     

    But
    “more practical”? In your dreams, maybe. Certainly not in the real
    world. 

    I happen to agree with you on the merits of the book, but in the schools
    where Alan Gribben has spent decades trying to get Mark Twain into the hands
    and minds of public-school youngsters, the choice is brutally simple:
    expurgated Mark Twain or no Mark Twain. 

    That’s what you “enlightened” commentators
    never seem to get. Nobody is going to “explain to students the context of the period . . . so they could have a better understanding,” because THEY WON’T BE READING IT.     

     

    As for
    your cutesy opening question, “What the Huck Did They Do to the Mark Twain
    Classic?” – the answer is, not a single damned thing. Nobody, anywhere, will have any
    trouble at all finding an “unexpurgated” Huck Finn; and a few minutes’ research
    would have told you that publishers have been printing much worse bowdlerized
    editions since before the start of the last century. 

  • bagels

    Spend some time in a middle or high school and you’ll soon learn that the n word is used freely and almost as a term of endearment between black boys and girls. I could never understand this.

  • Vik