Last week, I finished my goal of reading Huckleberry Finn.
This goal was chosen for two reasons. The first was simply because I had never read the book, and many people seemed to think I was committing a crime against American Literature. The second was an article about 2 years ago now which stated that some group was attempting to get all references of the word “nigger” deleted from the book.
This bothered me for many reasons, an obvious one being the blatant attack on the first amendment’s right to free speech. The editing of literature has been a constant in my life. Being raised in a conservative Christian town with conservative Christian values, I have no doubt that the perpetrators of the Ebenezer Christian School book editing fiasco had only the best of intentions while editing every book that appeared on the library bookshelves in all of the classrooms. They were obviously trying to shield us from the evils of society by blacking out cusses like ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ with their black sharpies. They did a fine job as well, seeing that I had no idea what the “F” word was in high school, or that it even existed in the English vocabulary.
I read many a book through my eighth grade year with key words sharpied out. Sometimes, when I was ever so curious, I’d hold the page up to the light to see if I could make out the type through the swish of the editor’s ink. Sometimes I could, sometimes I couldn’t. For the most part, I never felt like anything was missing, though I could better understand the depth of a character’s anger or understand the contempt and hatred and evil spewed by a character when I actually knew what they were saying.
So, when I heard that a group was attempting to edit all references to “nigger”, I set out to buy a copy. I went with the intention of preserving the original, but set a goal to actually read the book as well. Needless to say, editing out the word “nigger” would have edited a significant portion of the book. If you haven’t read the book, 1) you should, and 2) you should know that the use of the word “nigger” reflects the speech of the time and provides a great deal of insight on the absurd beliefs many white adults held toward African slaves and free-persons of the time.
One of the more poignant passages (and you’ll have to excuse my lack of direct quote and page citation, as my book is currently in storage again) is one in which Huck, who is watching is friend and escaped slave Jim cry over the loss of his family, decides that slaves have feelings and emotions like normal white people. He also sees a slave family torn apart, as the mother is sold up north while her sons are sold down south, which reinforces his thoughts on the fact that a “nigger” can be just as human as a white person.
I feel strongly that neither of these passages would be as impactful if we were to edit out an important part of speech from that particular era. When we think of the word nigger today, it conjures images of slavery, hatefulness, and an era of treating people as “less-than” based on the color of their skin. It’s a painful word, but it can’t and shouldn’t be erased from our history. If we forget this history, if we forget how we treated our fellow humans, we risk making the same mistakes in the future. I’ll spare you the rest of the history lesson, but I’ll say this – erasing words and ideas does nothing except erase the memory that a wrong was committed, and no one will be better because the word “nigger” was removed from such a classic piece of literature as Huckleberry Finn.
That being said, I’m about to confess something that hasn’t been confessed since my senior year of high school…bless me, friends, for I have sinned (and it’s been four years since my last book-related confession, if you’re counting) – When I worked for the library in my hometown, I would take books that I deemed “unworthy” and would hide them. I wouldn’t hide them behind other books, but in a super secret spot in the library where no one would find them…unless they were to take apart all of the shelving near the magazines. In my two years of working there, I purged the library of trashy paperback novels and racy teen books. I also purged the library of all of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit editions, though I’m still not entirely ashamed about that one.
While I still believe that the books I hid are books of little literary merit, that is not for me to decide. If those are books others enjoy, than who am I to stop them? People have the freedom to both read and write those books, and as a library worker I should have known better than to engage in censorship. The American Library Association states that, “A banning is the removal of those materials… they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. As such, they are a threat to freedom of speech and choice.” So, I’m sorry for any infringement of your freedoms that I’ve caused. That, and I made more work for the librarians. Sorry, friends. That was my bad. As penance, I will be writing a letter to the library, letting them know where I hid said books and magazines. I solemnly swear I won’t hide books, magazines, or ideas from others again.
I’m also going to take a closer look at the books on the ALA’s Banned Books list. Not all of the books were banned back in the day. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned in schools even as late as 2009. How crazy is that?
Read the list, and maybe pick a new book to read. I’m sure it will be worth your time.