The news that Mark Twain's classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is being edited to excise the word nigger and injun, a racially insensitive word for Native Americans, is disturbing. Alabama-based publisher NewSouth is re-issuing the book with the blessing of Twain scholar Alan Gribben, an English professor at Auburn University.
Gribben argues that removing the offensive language will make the story more palatable in the 21st century without making the story "colorblind." Gribben also hopes Twain's book will return to classroom reading lists, since many schools have banned it because of the racially charged words.
As a professor, it appears Gribben is missing the "teachable moment" and, as a Twain scholar, ignoring the fact that Twain was an abolitionist and supported emancipation. Huckleberry Finn is an indictment of racial prejudice written at a time shortly after the Civil War when emancipation had caused a rift between black and white that continues today – whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
The publication of this altered version is both revisionist history and censorship. It sets a dangerous precedent for literature. Is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird next? What about the work of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison? If we ban the word nigger from literature, should we ban Kanye, Jay-Z and all the other rappers who use it regularly in their music? Should Patti Smith's classic "Rock N' Roll Nigger" be revised to calm our frayed nerves?
In 100 years time, will the work being written today be censored and "revised" because the words and topics are unpleasant? Will the word faggot be removed from literature? Will Larry Kramer's 1978 novel Faggots be retitled Homosexual or Gay to mollify homophobic guilt? Will books by Armistead Maupin and other GBLT authors be rewritten? How about biographies like The Life and Times of Harvey Milk? When you begin to censor, where does it stop? I think you know the answer.
More than 40 years on from the Civil Rights Movement, America is loathe to talk about race. It makes people uncomfortable, it causes rifts and arguments. Taking a classic piece of literature and removing its historical context is not only ridiculous, but further proof that some Americans would rather sweep the past under the rug without understanding how that past still resonates today.
This also speaks to a larger issue: public domain of literature. If Twain's estate still held copyright control, you can bet they would have never let this travesty occur. Work published in the US before 1923 has fallen into public domain, which means it can be revised, rewritten, re-imagined by anyone without recrimination.
Professor Gribben said he believes that replacing the word nigger with slave will counter censorship of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Censorship to prevent censorship? It's political correctness run amok and a sorry day for literature, race relations and history.