Thursday, January 6, 2011

Straight to Satan on the Hogwart's Express and other banned book BS

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will hit book store shelves once again, this time scrubbed clean of the vile n-word and another, less frequently debated pejorative term for Native Americans.

The much touted new version of Mark Twain's classic replaces "nigger" with the word "slave." The publisher argues that the edit renders the book "more appropriate for school children."

Excuse me? Is nothing safe from "improvements?" Not even classic literature? Proponents of the change argue that it's just one word, and its removal doesn't change the novel in any material way.

Except it does. Mark Twain wrote Huck Finn as an adventure story, but also as a pointed critique of racism. His characters speak according to the norms of Twain's day. Watering down the language for modern sensibilities sends the message that certain likable characters were above the language of the day, when clearly they weren't.

If last week's public outcry doesn't sway the publisher, millions of students will henceforth read and study Huck Finn Lite. A powerful teaching moment will be swept to the cutting room floor. One of the fascinating points of the novel is the unequal camaraderie shared by Huck and Jim, which begs the question of whether such human relationships exist today.

The absence of the n-word also makes it easy for educators to sidestep any discussion about what makes the novel so objectionable to so many people in the first place. But just because kids won't hear the word in the classroom doesn't mean their ears are safe forever after.

The Grape, at the tender age of 17 months, hears that ugly word with monotonous regularity, mainly from the mouths of teenagers, whenever we walk on any major street in Boston. It's not like erasing the printed word will strike it from the vernacular.

Maybe if the original version of the novel were more widely taught, along with a discussion of the origins and historic usage of the n-word, it wouldn't be as lovingly deployed by the adolescent masses. And if teachers complain they're uncomfortable discussing the n-word, then good. It seems to me that their visceral reaction to the vocabulary would serve as an excellent starting point for a thoughtful discussion.

Besides, any English teacher who feels squeamish in the face of Mark Twain should saunter down to the sex education classroom, where (I'm told on good authority) their colleagues wrangle prophylactics onto pickling cucumbers at least once a semester.

I'm worried that the sanitizing of literature won't stop with Huck Finn. What if the new version catches on with school boards? Can you teach Night without violence, or indeed much of Shakespeare or Tolstoy? If we can't talk about the history of race relations, can we still discuss the changing roles of women in literature and society? Is "whore" another automatic taboo word that reconciles a book to curriculum exile? Or "cunt" for that matter? Because I promise you, it's not like high schoolers haven't heard them before.

Does anyone truly believe that white washing our historic and literary record will do our students any favors? Unfortunately, a vocal minority apparently does.

I mean, first we as a nation have to endure the periodic humiliation that results whenever some yahoo school board in Nowhere Central, USA insists on having science teachers present creationism in the classroom.

Then we get the "Texas Textbooks." You know, the ones that question whether the republic's founders really meant to separate church and state; that sweep that whole unpleasant slavery business under the rug.

I suppose we will always have dim-witted parents challenging books that offend their particular sensibilities. I think for many, the bad words are no more than a lame excuse for parents who don't want their children exposed to uncomfortable ideas, or to concepts that might force them to think critically or challenge their fundamental beliefs.

I was surprised to see that J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series tops the list of most challenged and banned books of the past decade. To me, any series that captures the imagination of tens of millions of middle schoolers should be a cause for celebration.

Not so to many in the religious right. Fictional wizardry dances too close to the occult for their tastes. God forbid Junior should be whisked straight to Satan on the Hogwart's Express.

The banned books list includes a mix of classics and popular contemporary titles. I was unsurprised to find Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret still hanging on in position 99 on the list. I devoured that brilliant book in the third grade, mens-troo-ation references and all. I don't think I suffered any lasting moral damage, though apparently many parents still find the topic of puberty too controversial for kids in the throes of the experience.

Here's a news flash: teenagers, like adults, tend to enjoy stories with a bit of an edge and characters with human flaws. Many of the frequently challenged titles tackle tough issues like racism, mental disability, totalitarianism and sexual violence. Several are laced with colorful language. Others do nothing more offensive than suggest that sex can be fun.

My hometown's public school curriculum included titles by Harper Lee, George Orwell, Joseph Heller, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and many of their compatriots on the banned books honor roll. We also read Huck Finn.

And guess what? I feel confident that none of my compatriots in English class interpreted Twain's use of the n-word as an endorsement of the slur. I'm curious enough as to whether Huck remains a staple of the North Kingstown High School curriculum to check and report back.

Incidentally, Huck Finn came in fourteenth on the American Library Association's list. The rankings of the top hundred challenged books for the past decade can be found here:

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