2011-01-13 / Sam Bari

Censorship: Is book burning next?

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
By Sam Bari

A couple of weeks ago I thought the New Year was off to an auspicious beginning. I wrote about the advent of the Kindle, Sony, HanLin and IRex wireless e-book readers and how they are bringing the popularity of reading to new heights.

Since copyrights have expired, classic novels by the likes of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen are enjoying a renaissance. They can now be downloaded free of charge from the Internet onto electronic readers.

Just as we were getting comfortable with the benefits of this new technology, a nemesis from a darker age raised its ugly head just to make sure that we weren’t too happy.

According to Publishers Weekly, Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University, edited Mark Twain’s classic, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” in the best interests of that annoying label, “political correctness,” which is nothing more than a weak obfuscation of “censorship.”

The edit will allegedly eliminate the use of the dreaded n-word, and replace it with “slave,” a demeaning, insulting, and disparaging term that is equally repugnant in polite modern society.

If we are to believe most scholars who have voiced their opinion, the only change that will result from the edit is the meaning of Twain’s bold and courageous message.

Twain never personalized the nword in the narrative of his book. He used it in dialogue to demonstrate the speech patterns and mindset of the times in post Civil War Missouri.

The story was about a barely educated white boy, who, despite the popular thinking at the time, assisted an adult slave in escaping capture to avoid certain death by hanging.

The book clearly implied that even an unsophisticated country bumpkin could see that human beings were not to be enslaved. He wasn’t taught to think that way. Huckleberry Finn, according to the story, figured it out for himself.

As Huck said in a film version of the novel, “I don’t give a damn what the whole world says.”

In Twain’s story, Finn put his life in jeopardy. If slave owners or bounty hunters caught him and the slave he was helping, Finn could have been severely whipped or even hung for his actions. That would have happened had he committed the same crimes in real life.

In an interview, Gribben told Publisher’s Weekly that “this is not an effort to render ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’ colorblind.” He added, “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

David Wall Rice, an assistant professor at Morehouse College, the only all-male historically black institution of higher learning in the United States, said, “That word meant something. That word means something. Twain’s slurs actually help Americans face the issue of racism. We have to have the discussion about it. We can’t skate over it.”

In the book, Twain uses the nword 219 times, deliberately to spotlight 19th century racism.

Hardy Brown, publisher of the Black Voice News, when asked about Gribben’s editing, in an interview said: “Absolutely no changes. The current society needs to know what white America thought about black America at that time, as some would like the world to forget.”

“Huckleberry Finn” was deemed controversial from its first printing in 1885. Critics said it was too coarse. But words, like works of art, are subject to interpretation.

A painting of a naked body can be a beautiful work rendered by a master, or it can be vulgar. The difference is often dependent upon the mindset of the critic.

Twain, a brave visionary who exposed the proponents of slavery for who they were and what they represented, wrote the work. His documentation of the societal mores at the time should remain intact.

If “Huckleberry Finn” is edited, then it is only fair that the n-word is deleted from every rap recording.

Additionally, every book that uses disparaging synonyms for other nationalities, like the k-word for Germans or the s-word for Latinos, etc., ad nauseam, should all be edited or banned from libraries and educational institutions.

The most important point to glean from this column is the importance of protection from censorship. Hundreds of thousands have died for freedom of speech. I hope not in vain.

Practice good manners, then we won’t have to worry about not having the right to express ourselves as we see fit.

Censorship is another part of this system that I will never understand.

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