One of my daughter’s goals—after getting published, of course—is to have at least one of her books banned. I understand what she’s talking about, but it seems to me that, these days, that’s not much of a distinction.
Want my recommendation for how to get put on the banned list? Use a term for blacks other than black or African-American (and don’t even get me started on this whole hyphenated American crap. We’ll be here for hours).
Two things about what I just said: 1), I am white, so full disclosure on that; and, 2) I am not advocating racism in any way. And I’m using blacks as an example for a specific reason.
Sometime last year, I Googled banned books and got several lists. I guess different people have different ideas about what’s to be banned and why. In an interesting aside, the book Fahrenheit 451, the sf classic about a future where all books are banned, made more than one of those lists. The Harry Potter series has been famously banned by some towns in the Bible Belt because it supposedly lured young people into the grips of the occult and taught them how to do magic. I won’t even address that, it’s so ridiculous.
But the one that still irks me—and a lot of other people, I’m sure—is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. If you’ve ever read the book, you’ll know why, at least on the surface: Huck quite regularly uses a racial slur that was very common during his day. And, what’s more, he takes the idea of slavery for granted. He states that, in helping Jim find freedom, “I knowed I done wrong.”
Let that sink in for a minute: it was wrong to help a slave escape to freedom.
These days, that’s such a foreign, abhorrent concept that it doesn’t even bear thinking about. And, to combat this, some so-called Mark Twain scholar has come out with a “sanitized” version of Huckleberry Finn. I wish I could remember his name, because it deserves infamy. And brings into question, in my mind at least, the value of an academic education.
Scholar? If he’s such an expert, can’t he see what Twain was trying to say with this book? Can’t he handle the truth? What I mean by that is that the simple truth (and maybe this blog will get banned because of what I’m about to say. Big fat hairy deal) of the matter is people called blacks niggers back then. Even blacks did. Not that that’s changed, but we’re not supposed to bring that up. I grew up with that term, and I thought, for a long time, it was the proper way to refer to blacks. It wasn’t used in a prejudiced way, either, even though I’m from the South.
Anyway, the point being, Twain was trying to point out how wrong slavery was, and he used the idiom of the times to do it. So what? Maybe, like me, he cringed every time he used that word. But that didn’t keep him from being honest, from telling the truth. Yes, it’s fiction, but it’s fiction with a point. He had something to say, and he knew that most people who won’t sit still for a sermon will devour a good story and absorb the point along the way, whether they want to or not. The fact that Huckleberry Finn is such an enduring classic says that it’s a good story, and that it has some points to make.
So, how did this alleged scholar sanitize Huck? He changed the word nigger and replaced it with slave.
Didn’t his mom ever tell him not to pick at a scab?
Slavery is a wound on our nation’s history. I won’t argue that. Nor will I go into the economic reasons why it existed and why it couldn’t continue to exist (there were protests against slavery in New York City not because it was wrong but because whites couldn’t get jobs and support their families since slaves weren’t paid. Sound familiar?). What I will say on this subject is, while we need to keep it in mind so it doesn’t happen again, we shouldn’t be picking at it, either. Bringing up something that ended over 160 years ago and trying to place blame (and therefore financial responsibility) for it on me is ridiculous. Considering my Scots-Irish heritage, I’m sure I could demand the same thing for ancestors who made it to America via indentured servitude.
The argument over slavery ignores two things, and I think it does it on purpose: 1), there have been just as many whites held as slaves as there have been blacks; and 2), everyone seems to forget that many of the black slaves from Africa were sold into slavery by other blacks. Again, why this happened is outside the scope of this post. And even this blog.
No one argues that slavery existed, and that it was a contradiction in a country founded on the concept of equal rights for all, that all men were created equal, and all that. Many have made the point that some of the men who helped ratify those words were slave owners. So be it.
The thing is, Twain was making a subtle—or maybe not so subtle—point about slavery, that it was wrong, and it was such an ingrained institution that some couldn’t get away from thinking helping to free a slave was wrong. Let’s all be thankful Huck wasn’t the only person in America who decided he didn’t care if it was wrong.
But how is changing the racial slur (I’m trying to keep from using the actual word too much because I don’t like it) to the word slave an improvement? How is picking at the wound—reminding everyone by beating them over the head with it—going to help? If you’re gonna replace it, put in Negro, or black. Because, in this context, slave and nigger are synonymous. What I mean by that is, in my mind, he’s grinding it in that blacks were once slaves, and they’d better not forget that or try to get too far from it. But maybe I’m just too much of a cynic for my own good.
You let a wound heal by leaving it alone, and that’s what we need to do with slavery and racism. We don’t need so-called leaders—black, white or otherwise—to help us work this out. I have gone from an upbringing where the word nigger was commonplace to accepting everyone regardless of skin color, and if I can do it, so can anyone else. By constantly keeping it in the news, and on our minds, we don’t give any of this a chance to heal.
It’ll crop up, of course. When you’ve got idiots who still idolize Hitler and join the Klan, it’ll happen. And, when you write fiction, sooner or later you’re gonna have a character who isn’t exactly couth about things, and he’ll use words that you wouldn’t. Does that mean you should censor yourself? Because, let’s be honest folks, that’s what it would be.
I won’t blame you if you never use a racial slur in your writing. That’s great. Maybe unrealistic, especially if you’re gonna write about the kinds of characters I write about in crime fiction—not exactly the cream of the crop, or they wouldn’t be in crime. But if it offends you too much to even so much as write the word, that’s okay. I don’t blame Christian authors for not putting profanity in their dialogue—it’s par for the course, they’re writing about people striving for a higher standard, and Christian publishers wouldn’t print it anyway. It’s unrealistic, to my experience, because lots of people use profanity as a matter of course. But I understand why Christian authors don’t use it.
As for me, I’m not gonna shy from the truth. Any writer knows that good characters take on a life of their own. Doesn’t mean you have to have a prejudiced character who slings slurs right and left. But it doesn’t mean you should shy away from using that character, either.
After all, like Mark Twain, you may be making a larger point, a better point. And what’s wrong with that?