NewSouth Books, a publishing company, is set to publish a new edition of Mark Twain’s classics, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, but with one slight change. They are going to replace the n-word with ‘slave’ so the books will be less offensive. I suppose the idea is to get around the book bans and protests people have when someone wants to add these iconic pieces of American Literature to a school reading list.
By making this change, it does make the books a lot less offensive. Sam would not approve. A major point of the books is to offend. Mr. Clemens wanted to show life in the south for what it was and life in the south was offensive to blacks. The n-word was derogatory in the mid-nineteenth century, but back then it was acceptable to some people to denigrate folks of African descent. To Samuel Clemens it was not something he approved of. His writing is not condoning society at the time but documenting it so that future generations can learn from it. In fact, through Huck’s perspective we see how he learns that maybe society doesn’t have it right when it comes to how it treats black people.
That’s what the presence of the n-word in these classic stories does; it give us the opportunity to teach just how bad it is to group people under offensive labels. There is a huge difference between the word slave and the n-word. Slave just tells us that people thought less of the people they owned. The n-word tells us that people saw a group of other people as lesser beings, suitable to be owned.
Slave is not derogatory in and of itself. In many cultures where slavery flourished, slaves were respected, though never considered equal, they were usually considered people, albeit people of a lesser class. It is pretty much only in the history of the Americas, and particularly of the southern United States that we see them considered sub-human. It is the n-word that conveys this, not the word ‘slave’. We lessen our acknowledgment of the suffering of a very large portion of our people by changing that label.
Not only should we leave these books intact, but we should be teaching them in our schools to show how poorly some people viewed other people. One of the grand arcs in Huck Finn is about Huck learning that his society-taught perceptions of black people are wrong and that Jim is a real and full person. This cannot be shown by just using the word ‘slave’.
Huckleberry Finn is arguably the best view of the American south in the 19th century from the eyes of youth. It relatable to our youth in a way that few adult authors could ever accomplish. Changing the n-word to slave in the Twain classics lessens the lessons we can teach from the books about the history of slavery in society in the American south. It treats gently the severe subject of just how much society strived to separate classes of people to justify the continued practice of slavery.