John McWhorter on Efforts to Remove the “N Word” from Huckleberry Finn

Last week, co-blogger Jonathan Adler noted the publication of a new edition of Huckleberry Finn that replaces all of the book’s many uses of the word “nigger” with “slave” in order to make it more palatable to modern teachers who want to assign the book to students. In this recent column, prominent black linguist John McWhorter criticizes such efforts to sanitize a classic:

NewSouth Books would seem to be creating a baby-food version of Huckleberry Finn, with the n-word replaced by “slave” because of feedback from teachers who claim the book has become “unteachable.”

I see. Eighth-graders are too unformed to understand the difference between someone calling someone else the n-word and an author using the word in an ancient book to reveal characters as ignorant. Interesting, given that the same eighth-graders hear the same word used by rappers daily and understand the difference between that usage — as a term of endearment — and the epithet one….

[I]s it really that adolescents can’t comprehend the layers inherent in the word and its usage? Are people younger than 18 really so foggy about the notion that social conditions change over time? And isn’t showing the open use of the word in the past part of showing how far America has come? And meanwhile, it’s hard not to notice that the typical black view regarding NewSouth’s action is that it would be a whitewashing of history. Black people want their kids to see the real Huckleberry Finn.

McWhorter’s objection (and mine) is not to the mere publication of the sanitized version of Finn. If there are people who want to read it, that’s fine. Rather, the problem is with its use as a teaching tool in schools. Part of the value of assigning the book is the way it accurately portrays (and condemns) the widespread racism of the era it depicts. Censoring out the word “nigger” undercuts its educational value. In mid-nineteenth century America, many whites – especially poorly educated ones like Huck Finn – routinely used the the word in everyday speech. That fact reflected the ubiquity of racism. And, as McWhorter puts it, that reality should not be whitewashed away.

Moreover, many other great works of literature also portray attitudes that are reprehensible and offensive. Unlike Twain, many other great authors actually endorsed such attitudes rather than condemned them. For example, some of the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Dostoevsky (The Merchant of Venice, Oliver Twist, etc.) reflect the widespread anti-Semitism of their time, a prejudice that these authors at least partially shared. Should all such works also be sanitized before assigning them to high school students? As McWhorter explains, educators would do better to explain the relevant historical context to their students instead of trying to shield them from literary depictions of offensive words and attitudes.

UPDATE: I have tried to find polling data on the subject of whether the majority of blacks really do oppose efforts to sanitize Huckleberry Finn, as McWhorter says. Unfortunately, a brief search didn’t find any relevant surveys. If any of our readers can point me to any such polls, I would be grateful. However, I am only interested in polls based on random samples, not internet polls with self-selected respondents, who may not be representative.

UPDATE #2: It’s also worth noting that replacing “nigger” with “slave” might obscure the meaning of the original text in some places, for example when the word is used to refer to blacks who weren’t slaves, thereby potentially confusing some readers.