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Suitable Substitution

Making Huck Finn more accessible will not change the story

By Alix M. Olian

According to many people, the entire literary world as we know it is about to vanish—based on the fact that a new publication of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” uses the words “slave,” “Indian,” and “half-breed,” to replace less politically correct words such as “nigger,” “Injun,” and “half-blood.” Besides raising other objections, opponents of this change argue that altering the book erases history, that good teachers already make the book tolerable, and that this decision will lead to a censorship of other great works. All of these opinions, however, are a disproportionate reaction to the situation at hand: In fact, the benefits of changing 200 words in a single edition of the novel far outweigh the costs.

There are indeed important historical and social lessons to be learned from Huck Finn; the plot centers on a boy coming to terms with the racism that is endemic in his society. To argue that changing “nigger” to “slave” erases racism from American history is to say that every teacher and reader of Huck Finn will suddenly become ignorant of the racism that has clouded our nation’s past. The word “slave” still gives insight into the inferior societal position that blacks held at the time. Its use simply encourages more people to read the story, as ”slave” is not as loaded as “nigger” and thus is slightly more tolerable to read aloud or silently.

Even today, we still must be careful how we treat race relations. It is important to discuss the history of race in literature and society, but it is a topic that must be handled delicately. In an interview with Oprah, hip-hop artist Jay-Z argued that our generation “…disarmed the word. We took the fire pin out of the grenade.” Jay-Z spoke of an ideal world, but certainly not the one that exists today. In her book “Seeing a Color-Blind Future,” race theorist Patricia J. Williams accurately describes how, as much as we all might wish to ignore race, the ability to ignore racial differences and stereotypes is tied to a position of white privilege. Currently, Huck Finn is the fourth-most banned book in the United States, and few teachers are able or comfortable enough to teach it to their students. The publication of a modified version of the text will allow more teachers to present the material in a comfortable way to their students.

In response to those who have argued that this could lead to the censorship of many other great works, I do not suggest burning all books that are politically incorrect. Rather, in instances where we do have a manner of slightly altering books to make them more tolerable, we should do so. In my public high school, we read a version of “The Canterbury Tales” that was translated from Middle English to English. I have no doubt that, in translation, the meanings of some words were slightly muddled or even lost. Like with “The Canterbury Tales,” anyone who wants to read Huck Finn in its original form can still choose to do so, while those who want to read a version that is easier to stomach also have an option.

As any history and literature concentrator can tell you, it is absolutely necessary to understand literature in its historical context. Even with Jim described as a “slave,” Huck Finn still tells the tale of a racist society. We have come a long way since Twain’s time, but not far enough that we can all move past the gut-wrenching feelings that certain words elicit.

Alix M. Olian ’11, a former Crimson editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.

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