Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Goodbye, cruel word


That is, What would Jay-Z do?

What would he do if someone changed his lyrics the way Alan Gribben has changed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for NewSouth Books.  (Read about it here.)  You see, Gribben has eliminated the word "nigger" from two of Mark Twain's novels. 

He has removed it more than 200 times from Huck Finn alone.

He also removed the word "Injun," but that is not the word that got Twain's novel in trouble each year with school boards and parents and students.

Gribben's goal was to make the book acceptable to a broader audience for a Big Read event in Alabama.  A Big Read is a campaign to get everyone in a city or a state to read the same book at about the same time.  Gribben, who is a university professor and a Twain scholar, had encountered many people who refused to read the book because of that word so beloved by Mr. Beyonce Knowles.  Gribben felt the trade-off was not worth it: the benefit of avoiding that word for the price of not reading the novel.  He felt a different deal needed to be made: the alteration of a classic for an expansion in its readership.

So people have been debating whether this OK.  Is it OK to change the novel in this way?  Is it OK to broaden the novel's potential audience by making it less likely to offend readers, when making it more appealing may mean changing its impact?  The novel itself isn't racist, but it is about racism.  Perhaps removing the offending word will make the racist environment in which Huck grows up also less ugly to the audience.  Perhaps readers will think life wasn't so bad after all in the South for a person of African descent.

My friend, Dean Rader, writes for the San Francisco Chronicle's blog site, and he wrote about this issue this week.  His take: "For me, the Neosporined Huck Finn is not the right remedy for the injuries of slavery and racism; it's a band-aid that doesn't cover the wound." 

I have taught Huckleberry Finn and other texts containing "nigger."  What do I feel about this new edition?

I don't really care.  I wouldn't use it in my classroom.  But its existence doesn't cause me to worry.

After all, has Gribben really changed the novel?  No.  It still exists in its original version -- in millions of copies.  People who like Gribben's version well enough might be inclined to experience Twain's version.  That's good.  And everyone reading Gribben's edition probably will know they are reading the "Neosporined" version.  It's not like people who eat at Taco Bell believe they are eating real Mexican food.  Gribben's readers will know they have been given a version altered to fit their tastes.

That's the funny thing about censorship.  It so often calls attention to the thing it tries to hide.   

If you read my last posting, about the snow penis in Lafayette, Ind., you might have watched the video from the TV station that covered the story.  If you did, you would have noticed that the snow penis is never visible.  Instead, it is hidden by a pixelated blur.  But you know what?  Everyone looking at the blur was, in some fashion or another, imagining what the offending sculpture looked like.

Follow my instructions: Do not think of a snow penis.

See how that works?

Was anyone ever fooled by f--k?  Isn't "bleep" more effective than that?  At least then my mother could insert "darn!" or "dang!" in the place of "bleep."  But once a magazine or book is coy enough to present only the first and last letters of the offending word, the editors have forced my mother to hear in her head a word she would prefer not to hear.

Although we can create techniques for recalling information, it seems futile to create techniques for forgetting.  Italian writer Umberto Eco speculated on this in his essay "An Ars Oblivionalis?  Forget It!" -- "But this technique allows one not to forget something but to remember that one wanted to forget it."

For many of Gribben's readers, each time they see the word "slave," they will register at some level, "This word is replacing 'nigger'."  And so the offending word remains present by the marker of its absence.

The way true damage would be done to American literaray tradition would be if Gribben's version replaced all other versions of Huck Finn.  I don't think that is likely to happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment