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‘Whitewashing’ of literary classics paints controversy


Some parents and students have called for the removal of Huck Finn from reading lists for more than a half-century.

The internet is abuzz with reaction to a publisher’s controversial decision to replace the N-word with “slave” in Mark Twain’s classic novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in an effort not to offend readers.

Black educators and scholars are sharply divided over the decision, according to a Jan. 10 report from BlackVoiceNews.com. A sampling of the hundreds of tweets and re-tweets that were posted in the days following the announcement, meanwhile, revealed many criticisms of the move.

Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who is working with NewSouth Books in Alabama to publish a combined volume of the books, said the N-word appears 219 times in Huck Finn and four times in Tom Sawyer. He said the word puts the books in danger of joining the list of literary classics that Twain once humorously defined as those “which people praise and don’t read.”

“It’s such a shame that one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers,” Gribben said.

According to BlackVoiceNews.com, Syracuse University professor and cultural commentator Boyce Watkins agrees. Watkins said he believes removing the N-word makes the text more palatable for today’s school children and therefore more useful in modern classrooms, the website reported.

“The fundamental question I would ask is, ‘Can you still make the point of this brilliant novel without using this word 219 times?’ I think that you can,” Watkins is quoted as saying.

Others liken the decision to a “whitewashing” of American cultural and literary history.

“I think this is problematic on so many levels,” Micahela Angela Davis, a former editor at Essence magazine and social commentator, reportedly told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “When we get into really censoring art and censoring literature, we open up a Pandora’s box. If a teacher is not prepared to have a social and historical conversation and place this masterpiece in context, is she prepared to teach that text? When we get into changing words, unwriting history, rearranging art, we start to put our democracy in danger.”

A sampling of responses on the micro-blogging website Twitter on Jan. 10 revealed hundreds of posts devoted to the topic.

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“Huck Finn noise is crazy,” tweeted user harrharrisonj. “People should be more afraid of their kids not reading than what they read.” Many other tweets noted that actress and comedienne Whoopie Goldberg said on The View: “You don’t have the right to change a classic.”

Even Twain himself was particular about his words. In an 1888 letter, he described the difference between the right word and the almost right one as “the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

The book isn’t scheduled to be published until February, at a mere 7,500 copies, but Gribben already has received a flood of hateful eMail accusing him of desecrating the novel. He said the eMails prove the word makes people uncomfortable.

“Not one of them mentions the word. They dance around it,” he said of the messages.

Another Twain scholar, professor Stephen Railton at the University of Virginia, said Gribben was well respected, but Railton called the new version “a terrible idea.”

The language depicts America’s past, Railton said, and the revised book was not being true to the period in which Twain was writing. Railton has an unaltered version of Huck Finn coming out later this year that includes context for schools to explore racism and slavery in the book.

“If we can’t do that in the classroom, we can’t do that anywhere,” he said.

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He said Gribben was not the first to alter Huck Finn. John Wallace, a teacher at the Mark Twain Intermediate School in northern Virginia, published a version of the book about 20 years ago that used “slave” rather than the N-word.

“His book had no traction,” Railton said.

Gribben, a 69-year-old English professor at Auburn University Montgomery, said he would have opposed the change for much of his career, but he began using “slave” during public readings and found audiences more accepting.

He decided to pursue the revised edition after middle and high school teachers lamented they no longer could assign the books.

Some parents and students have called for the removal of Huck Finn from reading lists for more than a half-century. In 1957, the New York City Board of Education removed the book from the approved textbook lists of elementary and junior high schools, but it could be taught in high school and bought for school libraries.

In 1998, parents in Tempe, Ariz., sued the local high school over the book’s inclusion on a required reading list. The case went as far as a federal appeals court; the parents lost.

Published in the U.S. in 1885, Huck Finn is the fourth most banned book in schools, according to “Banned in the U.S.A.” by Herbert N. Foerstal, a retired college librarian who has written several books on First Amendment issues.

Gribben conceded the edited text loses some of the caustic sting but said: “I want to provide an option for teachers and other people not comfortable with 219 instances of that word.”

In addition to replacing the N-word, Gribben changes the villain in Tom Sawyer from “Injun Joe” to “Indian Joe,” and “half-breed” becomes “half-blood.”

Gribben knows he won’t change the minds of his critics, but he’s eager to see how the book will be received by schools rather than university scholars.

“We’ll just let the readers decide,” he said.

For more curriculum news, read:

Teachers turn learning upside down

Civil-rights groups seek review of Texas curriculum changes

How to spur more technology use in the classroom

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