I’m not sure what to think about this latest eruption around Mark Twain’s classic book. I suppose the source of this static on the internet is due to a new release of the book which replaces uncomfortable words with easier to digest words. ‘Nigger’ (I really do hate that word and what it has come to mean) is replaced by ‘Slave.’ But something profoundly vital is missing. Context and the chance to learn.
Okay, let me start by saying that I don’t think the practices of being PC are bad. Like all things, using it in moderation to achieve balance is laudable. I’m old enough to remember the rude, nasty, definitely not funny jokes told about women to our faces – I remember being told if I didn’t laugh it meant I didn’t have a sense of humor – but somehow, with my humor intact, I still found incest and rape unfunny topics. And that was happening in the office where I worked. So, yes, telling people to knock it off when they are truly offensive isn’t bad. But – if you let something go too far, then maybe it is.
When it comes to Huck Finn and his adventures with Jim, I have to take the PC card out of play. It doesn’t belong there. In CONTEXT, the book was written at a time when people were wrestling with the idea that slaves were humans – not 3/5’s, but 100% human. We don’t get that kind of thinking today – it escapes our 21st Century ideals of equality (well, most of us understand that skin color does not indicate level of humanity, but in honesty, check the last election to see examples of people who still haven’t gotten the message.)
I think being PC about Huck Finn and taking the “N” word out of the book is tragic. What a missed opportunity. We have a chance to put the book into context of when it was written and why people thought that way. It is an amazing chance to not only show off good story writing, but also to speak to where we have been and where we are now. It suggests too where we can be as we evolve as a social species. What we loose when we whitewash (a strangely appropriate term) the language that might make someone uncomfortable (who, is an open question) we erase a viable, important chance to teach … and to heal.
Avoiding or pretending that we didn’t hold people as slaves and abuse their humanity is willful ignorance. There is nothing worse than purposely being ignorant. We can only have discussions about race and social growth when we honestly start the conversation at the beginning, with the truth. And well beyond Mr. Twain’s original purpose (or maybe not, he was a very smart man) Huck teaches us to know our history, to know what mistakes we have and can make, to be aware of the ease with which we dismiss our fellow man, and how to avoid doing it all over again. I see horrifying parallels of our historic bad behavior all over the world and yes … right next door, here in America, right now.
So, use Huck to teach. Show our kids the past with full confidence that we don’t live there anymore. Be brave and show them that we still have a long way to go, but look how far we’ve come thus far. There is hope. They should be part of all future conversations and should have a say in the death of inequality. Take the offensive words and discuss them in complete honesty. Let them express their offense or understanding. Give them credit for deeper thoughts and feelings. Bring out all the dirty laundry and inspect it down to every grubby thread. America the Brave? Not if we hide from our past.
Huck takes us on an adventure through the world he lived in. I refuse to be afraid of what that means because I envision a future where we damned well have grown up. The only way we’ll ever get there is to face the good and the bad. Equality starts with Honesty.