Roger Ebert is currently embroiled in controversy for a tweet he posted in reference to the new “n-word” free edition of Huckleberry Finn, in which he used the word in question. His response to those offended by his post, as well as his argument against the censoring of the new edition, is both articulate and completely rational- qualities often lacking on the side of those who support censorship in any form. From his Chicago Sun Times blog:
“The word is spoken by an illiterate 11-year-old runaway on the Mississippi River of the mid-19th Century. He has been schooled by his society to regard the runaway slave Jim as a Nigger and a thief … Huck reasons his way out of ignorant racism and into enlightenment and grace. He makes that journey far in advance of many of his “educated” contemporaries. Part of reading the novel is learning to be alert about how the N-Word is used in that process.”
Twain himself said, in a letter to George Bainton, ” The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Most of us realize Twain’s intent was not to be racist. He was simply using the language of the times. To remove the word “nigger” to prevent modern readers from being ” uncomfortable” removes the carefully crafted authenticity from the book. It removes the power at the heart of the book. It removes the significance of Huck’s enlightenment. And it removes an opportunity for candid discussion in classrooms across the nation. In its place, it leaves the intellectually frightening suggestion that confronting learners with an “uncomfortable” situation is inherently bad. It suggests that we shouldn’t “upset” students by holding a mirror to society. Worse, it suggests that teachers are not capable of addressing sensitive issues in their classrooms and that students are not capable of critical thinking.
Next up? Maybe a revised Schindler’s List, sans all that nasty Holocaust business.