Thursday, January 06, 2011
I have to agree with Ayn Rand that 1984 was an unrealistic novel, but I can't help alluding to it after hearing that a publishing company has decided to scrub the slur, "nigger" (as well as "Injun") from a great American classic that championed racial equality.
Next month, NewSouth Books is issuing a new edition of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Twain's classic depiction of the dehumanization of blacks in the Old South - minus the single word that most effectively makes the point. In its place in the new book will be the word "slave."I have commented at length on why it is wrong to ban such words -- which, like anything else are not intrinsically bad or good -- from public discourse. Nevertheless, the New York Daily News succinctly explains why this is such a bad move:
[I]ts casual use makes Huck's growing realization that runaway slave Jim is a man, and a superlative one at that, a truly remarkable transformation. Which is why all 219 uses must stay in "Huck Finn."I grew up in Mississippi just after the Civil Rights era, and the parochial schools I attended were racially integrated. I recall both a time when I was very young and had basically no concept of racial divisions of humanity, and a time, later, when race was, if not the first thing, among the among first things I noticed about a new acquaintance.
By considering my own intellectual development and observing that of others, I concluded long ago that the effects of this word (and others like it) on the young are profound. The frowned-upon and declining -- but still somewhat common use of that term -- played a big part in forming a habit that Rand describes only too well, of "differentiat[ing] between various breeds of animals, but not between animals and men."
How? By shifting one's focus from character to appearance, subtly framing what should always be a moral evaluation of an individual human being as, instead, mere identification of someone as a member of a breed. That is a terrible and crippling mental habit that can take decades to root out, and it can affect even those raised by very good parents, like myself. Thanks to them, I was never explicitly a racist, but I still picked up enough of this from others that regretfully have to admit that I used to give race weight in how I initially assessed others.
The following passage dramatizes only too well the kind of process someone has to go through thanks to such terms:
It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn't ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn't done that one if I'd a knowed it would make him feel that way.You need that ugly word to make the point, because anybody can be a slave, and the lesson here is to become able to recognize a fellow human being when you see one.
If your child is ever assigned Huckleberry Finn as a reading assignment, make sure he gets to read the real thing.