Leaving Literature as Written? A Twenty-First Century Challenge or Opportunity
A recent article by Tom Leonard in the UK’s Daily Mail has caught a lot of interest and generated a lot of discussion both in Facebook and in other venues. His article Huckleberry Finn Removes N-Word: Political Correctness Takes on Mark Twain’s Classic, discusses a forthcoming edition of the Twain classic to be released under the guidance of Dr. Alan Gribben, professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama, in which the “N Word and the term “injun” [referring to U.S. Indians] are replaced or restated to reflect 21st century sensibilities about race, ethnicity, and identity.
This is a must read article! Two key issues are raised: 1) Twain’s use of language recognized now as racist and 2) editing out objectionable language to overcome censorship and placement of a work on banned books lists.
A friend noted along with his link to the article, “The scholars say the new version is a bid to make the book's treatment of race more in line with 21st century values, but critics say the censorship is taking political correctness too far.” He then went on to ask, “What say you?”
Here is a summary of my contributions to the online conversation:
How can we learn/teach about history if we can't read a work in its original form and evaluate the context of its time? I think this is a potential tragedy as it really alters the state of literature and the disciplines of literary studies, interdisciplinary studies, and cultural studies, just to name a few (actually this list could go on ... history, American Studies).
We cannot re-write the history of race in the U.S. We can only contribute to writing its future. To erase the reality of racism in the U.S. is arguably one of the most racist things a person or group can do because by invisbilizing racism it is empowered and left unchallenged. We cannot rewrite the history of race in the U.S. We can only contribute to its future. To erase the reality of race in the U.S. is arguably one of the most racist things a person or group, whether or not they intend it, can do because by invisibilizing racism it is empowered and left unchallenged.
I don’t diminish or underestimate the pain/sting or racist language especially on people of color. However, I think we greatly fail as a society if we “whitewash” the impact of racism by erasing it, restating it, making it somehow more palatable.
The subtle influences of racism (and all other –isms), however, extend beyond use of language. So, if the language of a work were “fixed,” the more subtle nuances of racialized living may not be detected by readers who would experience the language as a red flag of sorts. Obviously, the whole story can’t be “fixed; that would mean remaking Twain’s work in its entirety, and thus it would no longer be Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”