Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The N-Word and Miss Watson's Big Nigger, Jim: The Racist Dangers of Retrospective Political Correctness


The recently announced publication from New South books, of a new version of Mark Twain's  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has created a backlash in defense of the original. Though perhaps the intentions were good, and the choice of an editor and Mark Twain scholar, Dr. Alan Gribben, admirable, the effort to sanitize the novel so that local school boards and libraries would stop censoring its availability on curricula and in public lending libraries is disturbing on many fronts. It is also dangerous in terms of a number of precedents: editing classic works of literature, even for reading by senior high school students; burying United States history and literary manifestations of it, in such a way as to damage understanding of current social issues; acceding to local pressure, sometimes limited to the complaint of a single parent; and, making use of the word nigger racist in new ways, including racism about who gets to use the word nigger in what context, whether historically accurate or not.

The word nigger is so sensitive in the United States that even African American pundits discussing the new edition don't dare use the word--carefully saying "the n-word" instead. Almost no mention has been made of the other editings of the double text Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: The NewSouth Edition which include, according to the Editor's Introduction, altering identifications of other characters by their ethnicity, "the Welshman", a Scot, etc as was done in Mark Twain's time, and correcting Injun to Indian, for the character Injun Joe in both novels. In the Editor's Introduction Injun has now become the I-word, much like the F-word, which used to stand for the 4 letter version of "fornicate", has now come to mean "faggot". The section of the Editor's Introduction on "Word Exchanges" ends with this particularly cringe-worthy statement: "For the same reasons the eight references in Tom Sawyer to “half-breed” have been converted to “half-blood,” which is less disrespectful and has even taken on a degree of panache since J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)."

The textual changes between the original standard Mark Twain texts, and the New South books edition are summarized thus:
Textual Emendations

With the exception of the changes in racial denotations (and in two archaic references to skin color) and the insertion of the raftsmen passage [which portrays whites in an extremely bad light], the texts of both novels otherwise follow the wording of the first American edition. Issues about questionable punctuation were resolved by consulting facsimiles of Twain’s manuscripts. The editor has silently modernized certain eccentricities of nineteenth-century punctuation and spelling, and has given American spellings preference over British spellings. Obvious typographical errors introduced by the printers and inconsistent spellings have been corrected. Mark Twain occasionally added footnotes to his own books; here these are placed within the text and indicated by { } brackets.
Mark Twain is deemed by literary scholars to be the greatest US novelist, or one of the greatest; and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be his greatest or one of his greatest works. Twain's major literary contribution as a novelist was to write in the American vernaculars of the time: white, black, child, and adult.  To replace nigger with slave is a travesty of this literary work and its contributions to American letters. This is not the same as updating the maid Dinah's speech in new editions of the Bobbsey Twins series of children's books which are much beloved but have no great literary impact. Their historicity is obscured by the new speech, and in that sense their updating is debatable.


Twain's primary mode of writing, or at least that of his greatest works, was social satire--of all of society, white and black, upper and lower, American and British, and himself included. Some of his most memorable words are gently satiric commentaries on the foibles of man, woman, and man and woman together.In Huckelberry Finn Twain used social satire to spread the Abolitionist message and cause, that he and his wife believed in and worked for, after the fact. In relation to the time of publication (1885) this message was a social one for his post-Civil war times: that niggers are human, with positive qualities, and worthy of better treatment than they were receiving. The satire reached the intended white audience by using that audience's language--whites then called their former slaves and newly freed servants niggers, in kindly and unkindly tones.

Tone is another aspect that should be well taught in literature classes, and how tone makes all the difference. I was having a conversation with a friend about this, and as she seemed not to understand, I said, "Here, I will demonstrate". Then I said, "You are a mother, and a café owner" in such a scornful tone she was physically taken aback. I didn't even bother saying anything about her race, her personal issues about her weight, or any other personally or socially sensitive topic. Written words similarly have tones to them and readers need to learn to identify the strategies used to communicate them, especially in the more insidious and subtle ways, so as to protect themselves from misreading, and acting on those misreadings.

Nigger derives from the Spanish and Portuguese negro (from the Latin for black, niger), widely used at the time of the Atlantic slave trade to designate a black, African slave. In its original meaning, it was a descriptive statement of fact. In Huckleberry Finn it is used as a descriptive statement of fact:
WE went tiptoeing along a path amongst the trees back towards the end of the widow's garden, stooping down so as the branches wouldn't scrape our heads. When we was passing by the kitchen I fell over a root and made a noise. We scrouched down and laid still. Miss Watson's big nigger, named Jim, was setting in the kitchen door; we could see him pretty clear, because there was a light behind him. He got up and stretched his neck out about a minute, listening. Then he says:
"Who dah?"
No where in Twain's original is Jim referred to as "Nigger Jim", as if it were a name in itself. "Nigger Jim" is an invention of later commentators. This is something else that students in literature classes should learn--how a piece of literature is re-interpreted through time both by professionals and society at large.

Nigger is part of a lexicon that has evolved, where each word started as a relatively neutral denotation, then acquired negative associations, and those negative connotations were then given or exaggerated to enable a political or social movement requiring a new lexicon: nigger, negro, colored, black, African American. The latter term has come into contention, most dramatically during the 2008 election primaries, when African American writer Debra J Dickerson wrote a seminal essay on how Barack Obama wasn't Black in the way that the US understands "Black", that is, up from slavery Blacks: "Colorblind: Barack Obama would be the great black hope in the next presidential race -- if he were actually black."

According to Dickerson, African American and Black do not refer to a person like Barack Obama who has an African biological father, or to recent immigrants from Africa (now more often from East Africa). They refer to Americans whose ancestors include those who arrived as slaves from Africa (mostly West Africa), and those born of them into slavery in the US. In that sense Michelle Obama is both black and African American in a way that Barack Obama is not. Her family were also part of the Great Migration that saw "negroes" and "coloreds" head north for work, to places like Chicago, where her family settled, when the South proved an extremely difficult place for former slaves and their descendants to live and work.

There are dangers in hiding this lexicon and in sweeping its history under the rug. First, it is a lexicon and a history that explains the social place and social issues of current African Americans, a fuller understanding of which is lost without the knowledge of how and what was said and done when. Younger generations need to be aware of this, and they will acquire that knowledge, or not, primarily in secondary school. While 85% of the US population graduates with a high school diploma, only 28% graduate with a Bachelor's degree.

Secondly, obliterating this lexicon is dangerous in that it is important for all students to understand how certain words, which may or may not have been originally offensive, have acquired or increased in offensiveness and why. It is important for them to realize that part of social change is changing the lexicon and the metaphors that grow from it, and how that is done, so that they may learn to identify, and do it, or join it, knowingly, without being duped by propaganda or the linguistic version of the Emperor's New Clothes.

Third, the US demographic is rapidly diminishing the minority status of African Americans (now 12-13% of the US population). Only their history justifies their current prominent position in US social discourse. Nationally, Hispanics are overtaking them (15-16% of the US population), and increasingly Hispanics are moving into the traditional Southern states and Northern cities where the African American demographic is strongest. The relatively large African American population of California--large for a western state--is comprised almost entirely of African Hispanic Americans. If African Americans are to have a voice commensurate with their historical place in the country, and greater than their real numbers, new generations of Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, and immigrants, including recent African immigrants (from all parts of Africa) need to learn to appreciate why they should hold that place.

Ultimately, it is racist to deny these words their appropriate places in American literature and history. The post-modern African American re-appropriation of the word "nigger" in film, song, and literature makes little real sense without understanding from whence the power of the re-appropriation derives--from their power in historical context: slavery, the Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, de-segregation, the Civil Rights movement. It is also racist that they cannot be used in non-pejorative contexts, like teaching, research, and accurate citation of original and contemporary works, by non-Blacks.

Below are excerpts from the original publication of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as it appears on gutenberg.org, the site of Project Gutenberg which provides free books and audio-books on line, primarily in English, but in a number of languages, though not yet including Arabic (any volunteer proofreaders? or audiobooks readers?).

The excerpts below were chosen for instances in which Jim appeared in the photographed text or illustrations, and for main excerpts of text where his role was key. The story of the nigger woman and her nigger kids, and the white woman and her white kids (below, just above Chapter XXXIII) is included as a good example of the message of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The full text of Twain's classic can be viewed and read here.

On a personal note, I have read, studied, and written on the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn previously. The most shocking aspect to me on this reading was the use of the reflexive verb "to hump oneself" (see the illustration and text prior to Chapter XII below)--that, and a very interesting interpretation of the Biblical story of Solomon (Sollermun), re-interpreted through the social class structures of slavery and the Reconstruction period (below, Chapter XIV).




"How do you come to be here, Jim, and how'd you get here?"

He looked pretty uneasy, and didn't say nothing for a minute. Then he says:

"Maybe I better not tell."

"Why, Jim?"

"Well, dey's reasons. But you wouldn' tell on me ef I uz to tell you, would you, Huck?"

"Blamed if I would, Jim."

"Well, I b'lieve you, Huck. I—I RUN OFF."

"Jim!"

"But mind, you said you wouldn' tell—you know you said you wouldn' tell, Huck."

"Well, I did. I said I wouldn't, and I'll stick to it. Honest INJUN, I will. People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum—but that don't make no difference. I ain't a-going to tell, and I ain't a-going back there, anyways. So, now, le's know all about it."

"Well, you see, it 'uz dis way. Ole missus—dat's Miss Watson—she pecks on me all de time, en treats me pooty rough, but she awluz said she wouldn' sell me down to Orleans. But I noticed dey wuz a nigger trader roun' de place considable lately, en I begin to git oneasy. Well, one night I creeps to de do' pooty late, en de do' warn't quite shet, en I hear old missus tell de widder she gwyne to sell me down to Orleans, but she didn' want to, but she could git eight hund'd dollars for me, en it 'uz sich a big stack o' money she couldn' resis'. De widder she try to git her to say she wouldn' do it, but I never waited to hear de res'. I lit out mighty quick, I tell you.




"Jim, this is nice," I says. "I wouldn't want to be nowhere else but here. Pass me along another hunk of fish and some hot corn-bread."

"Well, you wouldn't a ben here 'f it hadn't a ben for Jim. You'd a ben down dah in de woods widout any dinner, en gittn' mos' drownded, too; dat you would, honey. Chickens knows when it's gwyne to rain, en so do de birds, chile."


And so, take it all around, we made a good haul. When we was ready to shove off we was a quarter of a mile below the island, and it was pretty broad day; so I made Jim lay down in the canoe and cover up with the quilt, because if he set up people could tell he was a nigger a good ways off. I paddled over to the Illinois shore, and drifted down most a half a mile doing it. I crept up the dead water under the bank, and hadn't no accidents and didn't see nobody. We got home all safe.



Next morning I said it was getting slow and dull, and I wanted to get a stirring up some way. I said I reckoned I would slip over the river and find out what was going on. Jim liked that notion; but he said I must go in the dark and look sharp. Then he studied it over and said, couldn't I put on some of them old things and dress up like a girl? That was a good notion, too. So we shortened up one of the calico gowns, and I turned up my trouser-legs to my knees and got into it. Jim hitched it behind with the hooks, and it was a fair fit. I put on the sun-bonnet and tied it under my chin, and then for a body to look in and see my face was like looking down a joint of stove-pipe. Jim said nobody would know me, even in the daytime, hardly. I practiced around all day to get the hang of the things, and by and by I could do pretty well in them, only Jim said I didn't walk like a girl; and he said I must quit pulling up my gown to get at my britches-pocket. I took notice, and done better.

Then I jumped in the canoe and dug out for our place, a mile and a half below, as hard as I could go. I landed, and slopped through the timber and up the ridge and into the cavern. There Jim laid, sound asleep on the ground. I roused him out and says:

"Git up and hump yourself, Jim! There ain't a minute to lose. They're after us!"

Jim never asked no questions, he never said a word; but the way he worked for the next half an hour showed about how he was scared. By that time everything we had in the world was on our raft, and she was ready to be shoved out from the willow cove where she was hid. We put out the camp fire at the cavern the first thing, and didn't show a candle outside after that.

I took the canoe out from the shore a little piece, and took a look; but if there was a boat around I couldn't see it, for stars and shadows ain't good to see by. Then we got out the raft and slipped along down in the shade, past the foot of the island dead still—never saying a word.



So they started, and I lit out, all in a cold sweat, and scrambled forward. It was dark as pitch there; but I said, in a kind of a coarse whisper, "Jim!" and he answered up, right at my elbow, with a sort of a moan, and I says:

"Quick, Jim, it ain't no time for fooling around and moaning; there's a gang of murderers in yonder, and if we don't hunt up their boat and set her drifting down the river so these fellows can't get away from the wreck there's one of 'em going to be in a bad fix. But if we find their boat we can put ALL of 'em in a bad fix—for the sheriff 'll get 'em. Quick—hurry! I'll hunt the labboard side, you hunt the stabboard. You start at the raft, and—"

"Oh, my lordy, lordy! RAF'? Dey ain' no raf' no mo'; she done broke loose en gone I—en here we is!"





"...Don't you know about the harem? Solomon had one; he had about a million wives."

"Why, yes, dat's so; I—I'd done forgot it. A harem's a bo'd'n-house, I reck'n. Mos' likely dey has rackety times in de nussery. En I reck'n de wives quarrels considable; en dat 'crease de racket. Yit dey say Sollermun de wises' man dat ever live'. I doan' take no stock in dat. Bekase why: would a wise man want to live in de mids' er sich a blim-blammin' all de time? No—'deed he wouldn't. A wise man 'ud take en buil' a biler-factry; en den he could shet DOWN de biler-factry when he want to res'."

"Well, but he WAS the wisest man, anyway; because the widow she told me so, her own self."

"I doan k'yer what de widder say, he WARN'T no wise man nuther. He had some er de dad-fetchedes' ways I ever see. Does you know 'bout dat chile dat he 'uz gwyne to chop in two?"

"Yes, the widow told me all about it."

"WELL, den! Warn' dat de beatenes' notion in de worl'? You jes' take en look at it a minute. Dah's de stump, dah—dat's one er de women; heah's you—dat's de yuther one; I's Sollermun; en dish yer dollar bill's de chile. Bofe un you claims it. What does I do? Does I shin aroun' mongs' de neighbors en fine out which un you de bill DO b'long to, en han' it over to de right one, all safe en soun', de way dat anybody dat had any gumption would? No; I take en whack de bill in TWO, en give half un it to you, en de yuther half to de yuther woman. Dat's de way Sollermun was gwyne to do wid de chile. Now I want to ast you: what's de use er dat half a bill?—can't buy noth'n wid it. En what use is a half a chile? I wouldn' give a dern for a million un um."

"But hang it, Jim, you've clean missed the point—blame it, you've missed it a thousand mile."

"Who? Me? Go 'long. Doan' talk to me 'bout yo' pints. I reck'n I knows sense when I sees it; en dey ain' no sense in sich doin's as dat. De 'spute warn't 'bout a half a chile, de 'spute was 'bout a whole chile; en de man dat think he kin settle a 'spute 'bout a whole chile wid a half a chile doan' know enough to come in out'n de rain. Doan' talk to me 'bout Sollermun, Huck, I knows him by de back."

"But I tell you you don't get the point."

"Blame de point! I reck'n I knows what I knows. En mine you, de REAL pint is down furder—it's down deeper. It lays in de way Sollermun was raised. You take a man dat's got on'y one or two chillen; is dat man gwyne to be waseful o' chillen? No, he ain't; he can't 'ford it. HE know how to value 'em. But you take a man dat's got 'bout five million chillen runnin' roun' de house, en it's diffunt. HE as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey's plenty mo'. A chile er two, mo' er less, warn't no consekens to Sollermun, dad fatch him!"

I never see such a nigger. If he got a notion in his head once, there warn't no getting it out again. He was the most down on Solomon of any nigger I ever see. So I went to talking about other kings, and let Solomon slide. I told about Louis Sixteenth that got his head cut off in France long time ago; and about his little boy the dolphin, that would a been a king, but they took and shut him up in jail, and some say he died there.

"Po' little chap."

"But some says he got out and got away, and come to America."

"Dat's good! But he'll be pooty lonesome—dey ain' no kings here, is dey, Huck?"

"No."

"Den he cain't git no situation. What he gwyne to do?"




When I got half-way, first one hound and then another got up and went for me, and of course I stopped and faced them, and kept still. And such another powwow as they made! In a quarter of a minute I was a kind of a hub of a wheel, as you may say—spokes made out of dogs—circle of fifteen of them packed together around me, with their necks and noses stretched up towards me, a-barking and howling; and more a-coming; you could see them sailing over fences and around corners from everywheres.

A nigger woman come tearing out of the kitchen with a rolling-pin in her hand, singing out, "Begone YOU Tige! you Spot! begone sah!" and she fetched first one and then another of them a clip and sent them howling, and then the rest followed; and the next second half of them come back, wagging their tails around me, and making friends with me. There ain't no harm in a hound, nohow.

And behind the woman comes a little nigger girl and two little nigger boys without anything on but tow-linen shirts, and they hung on to their mother's gown, and peeped out from behind her at me, bashful, the way they always do. And here comes the white woman running from the house, about forty-five or fifty year old, bareheaded, and her spinning-stick in her hand; and behind her comes her little white children, acting the same way the little niggers was doing. She was smiling all over so she could hardly stand—and says:

"It's YOU, at last!—AIN'T it?"

I out with a "Yes'm" before I thought.


SO I started for town in the wagon, and when I was half-way I see a wagon coming, and sure enough it was Tom Sawyer, and I stopped and waited till he come along. I says "Hold on!" and it stopped alongside, and his mouth opened up like a trunk, and stayed so; and he swallowed two or three times like a person that's got a dry throat, and then says:

"I hain't ever done you no harm. You know that. So, then, what you want to come back and ha'nt ME for?"

I says:

"I hain't come back—I hain't been GONE."

When he heard my voice it righted him up some, but he warn't quite satisfied yet. He says:

"Don't you play nothing on me, because I wouldn't on you. Honest injun now, you ain't a ghost?"

"Honest injun, I ain't," I says.

"Well—I—I—well, that ought to settle it, of course; but I can't somehow seem to understand it no way. Looky here, warn't you ever murdered AT ALL?"

"No. I warn't ever murdered at all—I played it on them. You come in here and feel of me if you don't believe me."

So he done it; and it satisfied him; and he was that glad to see me again he didn't know what to do. And he wanted to know all about it right off, because it was a grand adventure, and mysterious, and so it hit him where he lived. But I said, leave it alone till by and by; and told his driver to wait, and we drove off a little piece, and I told him the kind of a fix I was in, and what did he reckon we better do? He said, let him alone a minute, and don't disturb him. So he thought and thought, and pretty soon he says:

"It's all right; I've got it. Take my trunk in your wagon, and let on it's your'n; and you turn back and fool along slow, so as to get to the house about the time you ought to; and I'll go towards town a piece, and take a fresh start, and get there a quarter or a half an hour after you; and you needn't let on to know me at first."

I says:

"All right; but wait a minute. There's one more thing—a thing that NOBODY don't know but me. And that is, there's a nigger here that I'm a-trying to steal out of slavery, and his name is JIM—old Miss Watson's Jim."

He says:

"What! Why, Jim is—"

He stopped and went to studying. I says:

"I know what you'll say. You'll say it's dirty, low-down business; but what if it is? I'm low down; and I'm a-going to steal him, and I want you keep mum and not let on. Will you?"

His eye lit up, and he says:

"I'll HELP you steal him!"

Well, I let go all holts then, like I was shot. It was the most astonishing speech I ever heard—and I'm bound to say Tom Sawyer fell considerable in my estimation. Only I couldn't believe it. Tom Sawyer a NIGGER-STEALER!

"Oh, shucks!" I says; "you're joking."

"I ain't joking, either."

"Well, then," I says, "joking or no joking, if you hear anything said about a runaway nigger, don't forget to remember that YOU don't know nothing about him, and I don't know nothing about him."



Your comments, thoughts, impressions, experiences?

7 comments:

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

Thanks for the informative essay. As a child my mother read both of these books to me twice. They were great favourites.

I think altering historic works for politcal correctness is wrong. They are period pieces and should be understood as such, particularly Twain's writing in dialect.

It is amusing to see that no commentator will speak or write the word nigger. I lived in the US black communities in Boston and New Haven for 10 years. It is widely used there in every day speech as it is in rap and hip hop music lyrics.

I must say the first day a child said it in front of my 3 year old, fair haired and blue eyed son, I scooped him up and took him in the house and told him in no uncertain terms he was never to use that word. We were the only white family in the area. :)
Last year while in Belgium I learned of Santa's helper "black Pete". No one there thought anything of it including Africans. I just could not imagine anyone in North American accepting a Christmas character in black face.

countrygirl said...

Just one word it's STUPID....a masterpiece of literature can't be changed only because in some eyes could offend someone....

During the anthebellum period nigger was used and i can't see why some p.c. extremist think it can be offensive to someone....the same p.c. extremists here in Italy lately don't built nativities in some schools because it could hurt the sensibilities of pupils of other religions (code word for muslim).

Slavery is a part of the US history and with it the use of words that right now are offensive..

The use of african american can have some hilarious effects...severals year ago a well knows anchorwoman used the word afro american to descibe Nelson Mandela!

I'm wondering what's next in this pc crazyness

oby said...

I think it is heresy to change the writings to appease some who might find it offensive...well, slavery and racism WAS offensive. Why are we wanting to water down what was the truth? How can one look back and see what it was like? why not just pretend slavery didn't exist because some don't like it? Or let's sanitize it to the point that when people read about it they think "what's the problem? It wasn't so bad back then." It is dangerous and plain stupid to sanitize the past to please some in the present.

The caveat about using the "N" word is that it is commonly used among blacks when referring to other blacks almost as a sign of affection...It is quite another thing for a white person to use it and conjures up all sorts of offensive images in blacks. They in effect "own" the word today and no one other than they can say it without causing a MAJOR ruckus...at least in the USA. So much so that you could invite a lawsuit by using it. I think it is stupid for blacks to use the term with each other...it feels offensive to me for them to call each other that as if they are voluntarily putting themselves on a lower level. The word is too loaded with emotion which gives it far to much power IMO.

oby said...

As far as how "nigger" came about, I have heard a different story.

It is said that people in the south used to call the slaves "nigra" which I have spelled to indicate the accented way it was pronounced instead of the more neutral and northern "negro" pronunciation. Having lived in the south for many years I can attest to the fact that they DO pronounce negro as nigra in some deep southern parts. It is supposedly from there where we get "nigger" which is a bastardization and lazy way to pronounce "nigra" (negro).

Saudi Jawa said...

It has always amused me that people who want to censor Huck Finn completely miss the whole point of the book. It was a racist world back then. Even good hearted Huck has racist tendencies. Yet his friendship with Jim is the core of the story.

Susanne said...

I really enjoyed this post, Chiara! Thank you for drawing attention to this and offering your perspective!

Wendy said...

Censorship is always wrong. To alter the works of another is sinful in my opinion. I have been angry about this latest stupid act for a couple of weeks now. We all need to write somebody about it so that it doesn't continue to happen. Political correctness should not apply to altering literature be it fiction or non-fiction history books.

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