Online exclusive: “slave” isn’t a six letter word

The release of a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain this February is not something one would consider a breaking news story, but in this new edition of an old classic the publisher has tempted fate.

The new book replaces all occurrences of the word “nigger” with “slave.” The reason behind the diction change is to make the book more approachable for teachers, who hesitate to introduce the book due to the racial slur. Though the publisher’s intentions were innocent enough, the alteration undermines the historical significance of the classical book.

Readers have long interpreted Huckleberry Finn as taking a critical stance against the American South and showing anti-slavery sentiment. Change to the work represents censorship, hiding the true social attitudes of the mid-19th century American south. America once used this term to describe in a degrading manner someone we today would call black. The term was degrading then and it remains so. But Twain’s intention was to show that blacks, including slaves, ought to be considered human and treated as such. With its obvious anti-racial sentiment, the degrading use of the word is justified by Twain’s intention of improving the treatment of blacks.

The censorship of Huckleberry Finn is reminiscent of a case in 2009 where a Brampton Catholic School pulled To Kill a Mockingbird from the 10th grade curriculum due to a complaint by a parent about racial slurs used in the book. The study of racism was targeted even though the book clearly advocates an end to discrimination.

Teachers often hesitate to bring up the topic of racism as it is controversial. A child or parent may take personal offense to the slur. Others, while advised against it, will nonetheless use the word intentionally with the purpose of offending. All these are justified fears, but the justification is not enough to edit history. If the publisher is concerned, they should promote education before censorship.

This type of solution would not only maintain the historical integrity of the classic, but also enable students to understand hate speech and the improper use of racial slurs — concepts which should be an integral part of a child’s education and development. There is much more to be gleaned about the vices of racism through the proper analysis of books where they are presented in a realistic context. Words do harm because of the attitudes and beliefs associated with the word, not because a specific sequence of phonemes triggers an innate feeling of offense. When the use of the word is within an academic context, the meanings are clarified and the limits of proper use are made clear to students. There is no reason why one should object to its use.

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