Words, Words, Words: Nigger vs Slave in Huckleberry Finn: Redux


My colleague Steffani Cameron wrote a brave piece yesterday on the story surrounding the forthcoming reprint of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  I won’t  revisit the argument here but if you want to read a passionate defense of language and historical honesty then please go back and read her piece.


The publishing project in question has been conceived and edited by Twain scholar Allan Gribben and will be published by NewSouth Press out of Alabama.


The basic story is this: Gribben/NewSouth have created a new edition of Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn that removes all 223  instances of the word nigger and replaces them with the word slave (nigger is used/replaced 219 times in Huck Finn, 4 times in Tom Sawyer). Gribben claims that his switcheroo will save the work from modern irrelevance. He claims that Twain’s use of the word nigger is a barrier to a broader readership.


Mr Gribben, as a scholar of Mark Twain and a citizen of the American south, is certainly entitled to his own thoughts and ideas on the matter.  I’m in support of him doing what he believes is right.


However, if Mr Gribben is right and we need a new edition of Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn for an entirely new generation of readers who might not otherwise pick up the book then I have an idea:


Instead of erasing an ugly word from a great book why don’t we amplify it?


Instead of acting as though the word nigger has no contemporary context or relevance in modern North American/Worldwide culture (as Bono once said, “the Irish are the niggers of Europe.”) why don’t we embrace and seek to understand and discuss its modern usage and compare it to Twain’s classic?


What I am proposing is this: Random House USA puts out a new, unexpurgated modestly priced trade edition of Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn.


They get Dave Chapelle, Michael Eric Dyson, Kanye West, Chuck D, Queen Latifah, Ice T, bell hooks and/or dream hampton (writer at Vibe Magazine, co-author of Jay-Z’s Decoded and the new Q-Tip biography) to write the introduction/preface and bring in Wayde Compton to write the afterword.


Promote open discussion of race and language in our society.


Don’t hide from it. Don’t take the find/replace shortcut.


We can do it. We don’t need to hide from our language or our past.


The word nigger is used everyday in our popular culture. I’d rather understand what it meant, what it means, what it represents and where we’re going with it, than wipe it away.



Sean Cranbury is the Executive Editor of Books on the Radio. He's also Founder and Creative Director of the Real Vancouver Writers' Series. Sean is General Manager at the legendary Storm Crow Tavern and consults with literary arts organizations on digital communications strategies.

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