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Censorship or Compromise?

There was an interesting article yesterday in Entertainment Weekly about a new edition of Huckleberry Finn that is replacing the "n-word" with the word "slave".

I have to be honest, my first thought was "thank God, there's an uncomfortable situation avoided!". As someone who grew up in the suburbs leading a pretty sheltered life and avoiding conflict at all costs (I would prefer to have a root canal than to tap the person that cut me in line at CVS and say "um, the line started back there"), even the fact that I just wrote "n-word" makes me uncomfortable. But I have to wonder, are we letting the prospect of a few uncomfortable silences, or maybe a tough conversation trump Twain's sharp and astute commentary on the pervasiveness of racism that is just as relevant today as it was in 1885?

The comments on this article are of real interest, and both sides have a point. As an advocate of this edition points out, the novel in its original form will still be readily available, and this new edition would make possible its exposure in regions of the country that have effectively banned the book in classrooms because of its language. But one reader noted: "I think it's dangerous to edit the word out of its original, racist context. If it is edited when it carries that meaning, my four year old may grow up thinking it is a perfectly acceptable nickname that rappers throw around at one another."

The question of where to draw the line comes up often in education. How much should we expose our children to something that is hurtful, immoral, or uncomfortable in order to teach them how to make change? In this example, by protecting them from the n-word are we missing an opportunity for them to learn the true consequences of slavery and the insidiousness of racism? Or will they learn it anyway, and be spared from an ugly word in the process?

Compromise is tricky. It's easy to feel like your passion has been watered down. Sometimes it really doesn't feel like the right choice. Maybe it isn't. I have to say I'm torn between seeing the value in bringing the ultimate message of Huckleberry Finn to places where the language has previously been prohibitive, and feeling that if we continue to soften the bite of truth that makes us uncomfortable, then pretty soon there might not be much truth left. Even though it makes me shudder to hear or see the word, I think I would need to trust my students enough that we could face the discomfort together and explore what the real message is.

Ultimately, if it were my classroom, the n-word would stay. It would have to. I wouldn't want my students, or my children to follow an example of avoiding situations that make them uncomfortable and risk standing silently by while injustice persists. It's worth the sweaty palms and the knot in my stomach to show students the true ugliness of slavery and racism - the reaction to it should be visceral.

Posted by Nastasia Lawton on January 4, 2011 4:08 PM

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