Sunday, January 9, 2011

Huckleberry Finn and the n-word: Where Do You Stand?

In case you’ve been living under a rock as I often do, there’s a tempest brewing in the literary world. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has been published with the notorious n-word taken out—replaced by ‘slave’(not the edition pictured above). Outrageous or a reasonable alternative for teachers to use?

First off, I haven’t read Huck Finn, but if I do, I’ll take the original version. The n-word is an ugly word, but I’m guessing it was chosen, in part, because of that ugliness. If you want to peg a modern-day character as brutish, ignorant, racially biased and mean, using that word will do it. Then again, a conversation between two black characters set in 2011 might see the word used in jest.

But what about historical writing? My current wip takes places in the late 1850’s on a tobacco plantation using slaves. As much as I cuss in real life, I never use the n-word. But I’m not one of my characters. Will I use the n-word in this book? My internal debate is ongoing.

As a parent, I have a hard time taking sides. I would let my children read the original version, but I wouldn’t organize a protest if a teacher of theirs wanted to use the sanitized version.

I do have cause to worry about racial epitaphs with my kids. I’m a pale-as-milk Caucasian, but my husband is very dark with an Indian/Caribbean heritage. Our two girls are mocha-babies. Big Bear has already been called a ‘redacted’ by one of her first-grade classmates. (Oh dear God, this name-caller is on my shit list and if she ever says this to my child again, there’ll be hell to pay.)

Okay, now I’m more informed on how names can hurt—more than I ever wanted to be.

How do you feel about this controversy (as a parent, a writer, or both)?

Want to read more? Check out the following or google “Huck Finn n word”.

Huck Finn, A Teacher’s Guide

Huckleberry Finn Looses the N-word

Teacher thinks Obama is proof that 'Huckleberry Finn' needs to leave the classroom


  1. Oh, kids and names can be so cruel. I would not handle that situation well.

    But as for your story ... in order to make it "real", wouldn't you want to talk the way they did back then? Just like if you wrote a story twenty years from now and wanted to use the slang we do right now? Yeah ... I would use it.


  2. I don't think it should be taken out. It's a part of history. If you can't face it and talk about it like an adult, then you're not facing reality. If you're going to edit out that word, what's the next one? and the next one? It will never stop once you start.

  3. I agree with both of you, Justine and Hannah. I shouldn't be afraid to use the word. I'll try to separate my personal feelings from the 'art' of writing. Not all art is meant to be beautiful and pleasing, be it novels, songs, or paintings.

  4. Just because our society has progressed doesn't mean we should forget the roots of our history. If anything it should keep us from making the same mistakes.


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