Slave

Posted on January 10, 2011 by

6


When is a word more than a word?

James Lipton may not be smiling once he hears my answers to his 10 questions.

By Meryn Fluker

When I was a young latchkey kid, I always dreamed that I’d end up on “Inside the Actors Studio.” No matter that I couldn’t act, I knew I’d one day sit across from James Lipton and have him ask me those 10 questions. Throughout my childhood, I agonized over my answers but one always stayed the same:

“Meryn, what is your least favorite word?”

“Nigger.”

I know, I know; a pretty cliche answer for a black girl. It was the truth then and it’s the truth now, despite the fact that I’ve long since let go of my dreams of teaching a bunch of grad students about my acting process.

It seems like not a day goes by where I don’t hear the dreaded “n-word,” – also known as “nigger” – the divisive racial slur about which we can’t seem to reach a consensus. I hear the word daily because of my own choosing; coming from the lips of Kanye West, Jay-Z and Chris Rock. Sure, the occasional high school peer would drop the “n-bomb” in conversation or in quoting a rap lyric, but my experiences with the word were far cries from the vitriol captured in Civil Rights documentaries.

"Slave Jim" just doesn't have that same historically accurate ring to it. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was no surprise to me last week when I met my daily “nigger” quota, though the method came as a bit of a shock. I found out that a new version of Mark Twain‘s classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” will be published with its 219 (according to Marc Schultz of Publishers Weekly) uses of “nigger” replaced by “slave.”

Wow. How’s that for missed intent?

Alan Gribben, the Twain scholar behind the campaign to remove the offensive word from the 1884 novel told Schultz that “[t]his is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind … Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.” Gribben also said that the effort is to make the book more accessible to general readers and easier to teach in the classroom.

I may be the token of the ArtSTALK staff but I don’t really fit the Black stereotypes. I don’t have long nails or kids – and not only do I know who my dad is, he has been married to my mom for over 30 years. Oh, and I don’t go around saying “nigger.” (And in case you’re wondering, I can guarantee you that the only time anyone will catch me using the “n-word” is in this context, when I’m actually discussing the word and its meaning.)

One of the few books I read and enjoyed in my high school Advanced Placement Language and Composition class was “Huckleberry Finn.” I couldn’t tell you what I loved about it, but I remember liking it more than most of the books I read (or pretended to read – *cough* “Heart of Darkness“). I liked the vividness of Twain’s characters and the wit with which he sketched them. Everything about the book felt authentic and unpretentious, including its frequent use of “nigger.”

I wasn’t alive during the days depicted in “Huckleberry Finn,” – thank God, because I’d be 175 years old now and probably would’ve had to be a slave – but my guess is Whites weren’t referring to Black people as “Black people” or “African Americans.”

Another safer, less-racist and downright dreamier way to learn Twain's classics. Image courtesy of Wikipedia (and genetics, which gave Generation Y girls the fantasy known as JTT).

“Huckleberry Finn” works as a book in part because of its honest portrayals of racism. The novel is an American classic because it does not shy away from showing all that America and White Americans were: escapist, driven and at times, racist (we can debate the success of Twain’s satire at another time, but Tina Fey was right, it’s easy to look back on his work and see that it’s “actually pretty racist.”).  The quality, originality and impact of “Huckleberry Finn” are inextricable from its racial content, which is also the reason why the novel consistently ranks among the most banned and challenged books in America’s libraries.

The effort to replace “nigger” with “slave”  is also offensive on a base level; I don’t think slaves were niggers. A nigger by definition, according to dictionary.com, is “a person of any race or origin regarded as contemptible, inferior, ignorant, etc.” Slaves were considered inferior but it’s pretty outwardly racist to assume their inferiority is empirical fact. “Nigger” and “slave” may have been interchangeable words in Twain’s days, but if we’re applying 21st century revisionist racial thought to remove the word “nigger,” shouldn’t we be extra-sensitive with the word we choose to replace it?

I have an idea: Let’s scrub all references to racism from American literature and history textbooks. Let’s play like slavery and racism are two completely unrelated things. Let’s pretend that Africans came over here of their own volition and didn’t plan on working once they got here (get it? Because they’re lazy!). Let’s pretend that institutionalized racism doesn’t exist and that Black people say “nigger” (and of course, it’s ugly sister “nigga“) more than White people do, and that the Civil Rights Movement was really about getting to dance together on local variety shows.

That’s an extreme response, I know, but that’s what removing “nigger” from “Huckleberry Finn” does: It allows some Whites to go on pretending that the best way to raise open-minded children and solve racism is by pretending it doesn’t exist. This is just another page in the “I’m So Glad America is Now Post-Racial” playbook, right next to “How Electing a Half-Black Man President Eliminates Racism.” Not to spoil the ending of that book, but no, having a half-black president has not spelled the end of racism. Not even close.

News flash: I grew up in a suburb where kids were taught that all people were equal and that racism was bad. We even touched on the Civil Rights Movement and slavery and how awful it was and how all the Whites in the north were good and all the Whites in the south were Klan members. You know what that resulted in? The kids I went to high school with are some of the biggest blind racists I’ve ever met. My own – now former, thank God – good friends were bigots.

But the worst part wasn’t when they told me “I was one of the good ones” or how glad they were that I “didn’t fit the stereotypes.” The worst part was that – even as we sat elbow-to-elbow discussing “Huckleberry Finn” in class – they had no idea that calling someone a “credit to their race” is just as offensive as assuming I love fried chicken (I don’t) and that I’m an amazing dancer (the jury is still out on that one). I won the “whitest black girl” award at my school, so to speak, and that’s one contest I’d rather have lost.

A really great book for young readers that is pretty noncontroversial and doesn't use the words "nigger" or "slave." Image from the BSC Wiki.

The truth is, as the brilliant Aaron Sorkin once wrote, that “education is the silver bullet.” If we can openly, honestly and accurately teach kids about the ugliness of historical racism and how its spirit is still omnipresent today, maybe we can begin to eradicate it. I’d like to think that if my peers could’ve learned that only accepting black kids who “act white” is racist, maybe my stomach wouldn’t turn at the very thought of speaking to almost anyone pictured in my yearbooks. If my former friends learned that you don’t have to wear a white sheet or call someone a “nigger” to be a racist, maybe I’d still be friends with them instead of blogging about them.

I can almost support the idea of removing “nigger” from “Huckleberry Finn” if it means more students will be able to read it because there will be fewer challenges from parents and librarians. However, sanitizing the novel’s language means diluting its message – and if students are going to learn about a clean-and-tidy form of racism, I’d rather they continue to not learn about racism at all. They can just read “The Baby-Sitters Club” instead.

Meryn Fluker

Advertisements