Signifyin’: New adaptation of Mark Twain classic puts spotlight (again) on the “N”-word

Written by admin   // January 13, 2011   // 0 Comments

by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt

Syndicated talk show host Warren Ballentine theorizes ‘it’ is an attempt to rewrite American history.

Educator Jodi Pitts feels uncomfortable using the ‘original’ in her classroom, saying it is insensitive to students of color.

Pitts has a compelling point, one that is articulated well by noted African American law professor Paul Butler, who asked how to weigh the pain ‘it’ causes Black students against ‘its’ literary value.

Apparently, many gatekeepers agree as noted by the fact that the ‘original’ version is the fourth most banned book in America according to Herbert Foerstel, author of ‘Banned in the U.S.A.:  A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries.”

If you haven’t guessed already, the subject of this column is the controversy brewing over a soon to be published adaptation of the Mark Twain classic ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’

More specifically, the controversy centers on editor Alan Gribben’s decision to remove the racist epithet ‘nigger’ from the book, replacing it with ‘slave.’

Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama and a Twain expert, said the racist epithet nigger is used over 211 times in the book, mostly as an adjective.

He acknowledges Twain used the word satirically, as a tool to peel away American hypocrisy.

From my perceptive, this controversy is not as black and white (no pun intended) as some have made it to be.  It’s not just about political correctness versus censorship. Nor can it be restricted to a debate about literary value versus historical timetables. Beyond the superficial, this controversy brings into focus the seeds of racism, prejudices, and a cultural foundation that continues to impact race relations a century after the publication of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

It also delves into the proposition that the shadow of slavery still hovers over the heads of far too many Black Americans in 2011.

Let’s explore three pertinent issues.

Point one:

Bill Crosby was recently named the 2011 recipient of the Mark Twain Award, which honors comedians for their storytelling ability. While this announcement is a little off the beaten path, it ties in to the subject because its goes to the heart of Twain’s worldview and his unique social commentaries.

It has been theorized that Twain’s copious use of racist epithets, including ‘nigger’ and ‘Injun’ were to sensationalize the attitudes of the day and to delve into the roots of American racism in the antebellum South.

Huckleberry Finn, from that perspective, dealt with the evolution of a young boy who initially looks upon his Black companion, Jim, as a sub-human, but by the end of the book views him as a friend and fellow human being.

Thus the use of the ‘n-word’ was crucial to the storyline

Through that prism, the current controversy blurs the line between censorship and political correctness.

Let us not forget that Twain’s book was written during an era when ‘constitutionally’ Black people were described as three fifths of a man; in the eyes of many ‘Americans,’ we were animals. Tom was a pet, and even the lowliest White American thought he was far superior to the most articulate and educated Black man.

Bigotry was an essential underpinning of the American slavery system, which was built, initially, on the premise that we were considered the descendents of Ham. And even among those opposed to slavery many, if not most, viewed us as inferior.  Among that group were American presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Abe Lincoln.

America has evolved. We are today a nation that claims to champion human rights. As such, we must disconnect with our embarrassing past. We must disassociate with our ancestors, and if at all possible blur history.

From that vantage point, some believe Gribben may be attempting to sanitize Huckleberry Finn as part of a campaign to ‘whitewash’ America’s past.

When I posed the question of whether the new version of Twain’s book should remove the ‘n’ word, Facebook friend Gat Turner responded: “I feel that this is just another dynamic of a trend that seems to be going on in American society. There is a mass dumbing down going on. There is also a movement to erase or minimize what was actually done to the darker peoples of the earth by whites.

“This is not just offensive from an arts and cultural standpoint, but it is also offensive from a historical standpoint.

“Literature and language from those who perpetrated racism and implemented a system of White supremacy/Black inferiority is a bearing of witness that it actually existed from their own pens and mouths. When that is taken away, watered down, or altered, it is only a matter of time before denial follows.”

Kevin Jacobs-Muhammad I agreed. “I say if the N-word is in there, let it stay. If we are not careful, they will eventually slide in that Black People came to America to seek better job opportunities.”

Of course that leaves open the door for exploitation of the word, particularly in the American classroom. To allow students, particularly young ones, to read the book without a discussion on the word and its role in sustaining racism as a cornerstone of the American culture, is disingenuous and dangerous.

Conversely, rewriting American history, desensitizing or sanitizing racism is equally precarious.

Can you imagine what would happen if neo-Nazis would attempt to dilute the evil of the holocaust by rewriting history? Or what about the treatment and genocide against Native Americans?

Come to think about it, they were all but a few steps short of accomplishing that latter travesty.

In my youth I, like most Americans, succumbed to the American propaganda machine. We thought John Wayne was a hero, that Native Americans were savages, and Western expansionism was true Manifest Destiny ordained by God.

The media, I admit in retrospect, was successful in its attempt to paint a false picture of American expansionism. The truth of the matter was the Native Americans were in the right; American soldiers and citizen militias including the invention of scalping committed most of the acts of cruelty. George Custer got what he deserved after murdering women and children as part of a scheme to steal their land and their gold.

Our acceptance of the false history promulgated by the media and educators kept Native Americans in that shadow of myth and stereotype, which all but destroyed a mighty nation of proud and noble people.

My second point focuses on a simple question of equal symmetry:  Are we sanitizing the adjective/noun nigger by referring to it as the ‘N’ word?

Does substituting ‘n’ word for nigger confuse anyone?

Does substituting ‘n-word’ for the vile, despicable word takes away its sting? Does it make it any less derogatory?

Does being ‘politically correct’ mask the cancer of racism that is at the root of the word?

Last point:

I had just emerged from a northwest store when excessively loud gangsta rap music emulating from a late model hoopty diverted my attention.

While I have become all but desensitized by that scenario, I was caught off guard when I discovered the two occupants of the vehicle were White.

Just as I looked down at them, the air was filled with the musical lyrics, which included a bundle of epithets and sexist descriptions including nigger, bitch and hoe.

Several Whites pedestrians on the sidewalk looked in the direction of the car with shock and horror on their faces. I stood frozen to my spot, a look of embarrassment on my face.

The two occupants then looked up at me and nodded as if seeking my approval.

I shook my head and walked off.

Are we moving closer to that day envisioned by Martin Luther King; the day of true integration, equality and assimilation when White Americans can boldly use to the epithet ‘nigger’ without fear of retribution?

Most Black Americans would probably say no to that question.

Gratefully, for the vast majority of Black Americans, even the most innocent usage of the word (including reciting the lyrics of a popular, albeit self denigrating song) by Whites is met with anger, and sometimes violence.

In the last year, Black gatekeepers, pundits and civil rights leaders have asked for the head of comedian Michael Richards and actor and director Mel Gibson for their utterances of the adjective/noun.

And then there’s Disney Producer Mark Gordon who faced reprimand for using the ‘n’ word during a table reading for a new TV series about Army wives.

And of course this list would not be complete without mention of shock jock Laura Schlesinger’s idiotic verbal melee with a caller to her radio program last year.

Schlessinger confronted a Black woman who is married to a White man in a racially charged debate over the use of the word nigger. The conservative talk show host essentially said as long as Black people can use the word, Whites could as well.

Black people who use the word have desensitized and redefined the adjective/noun, she said, so why would there be an uproar today, particularly since we have a Black president.

Does Obama use the word? And if he does, wouldn’t that make it mainstream?

Yeah well, you answer that question.  Being among the minority who continue to find the word offensive whether it is used by Whites, Black Americans or Martians, I won’t get caught up in that self-defeating game.

Those who have read this column or who have listened to my speeches and lectures know that I detest the word, and have consistently criticized Black people who include it in their vocabularies.

The fact that I am apparently in the minority about this does not diminish my position, nor my conclusion that those who use the word, whether to attack, define or even to effectuate affection, do so at the risk of standing under the shadow of slavery. The word chains us to our slavery past, as much as bigotry ever has.

No one has yet to move me from my theory that this act of self-hatred, self-denigration and self-denial is partly responsible for our political, economic and cultural stagnation in this country.

Like Mark Twain, I have used the word repeatedly in this column to make a point about how ignorance and hypocrisy are the racist fibers woven into this cloth of American history.

Twain focused his attention on the oppressors. For me, it’s about the victims. Black folks who find fault with the use of the adjective/noun NIGGER in Twain’s book, but use the epithet themselves, affectingly in reference to their mothers, sisters, brothers or even the Son of Man (yeah, according to some Black folks, Lord Jesus is a nigger), should not have a say in this debate.

Instead they need to recall the words of Mark Twain in 1904:  “The skin of every human being contains a slave.”


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