TGIF: cheers and jeers

Jeers: File this first one in that category for things you want to say but that you should still give an additional 5-10 seconds of thought before so doing. [Warning, some of the tweets and/or Facebook comments linked in this article contain language some may–and should, in my opinion–find offensive.]

It’s likely been impossible not to know about an upcoming edited version of Mark Twain’s–1884 book–Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that plans to remove the n-word. Now that’s a word you’ll almost never hear me use, never see me write* and never see me glorify. Still, I don’t agree with revising the book even though the word apparently appears 219 times. I honestly don’t remember having to read the book in school, however much as I loved to read, I hated the assigned reading so I may have skipped it and aced the test.** But editing the book to remove offensive content is an insult to students and teachers and ultimately to society. It’s saying “You’re not mature enough to have an educational conversation about the context of the word in this book, so we’ll just relieve you of that burden by removing it.”

I’m not alone in this thought, people of all skin tones took to blogs, comment threads and social media to express their dislike for the new version. What started to bother me was the casual use of the n-word in their protests. Some–not all–seemed to revel in what they must have thought was implicit permission to use the word outside the context of the story, and sadly from my notice, these people were not black. Not that I believe in the double standard, I don’t think anyone should use it, but from a purely observational standpoint it’s clear that some people are frowned on more for saying it than others, even if they’re attempting to make a valid point. Case in point: Roger Ebert. Aside from still being a well-respected movie reviewer, he’s embraced social media to express his opinions on just about everything, so when a Facebook user pointed out the Huck Finn revision, he posted the following on both Facebook and Twitter (edited):

I’d rather be called a N****r than a Slave.

It was then “Liked” on Facebook by 5 users and retweeted on Twitter by over 100 users/accounts, some that I follow. I also retweeted it, but as an “old-school” retweet adding my own comment to it:

Fair point, from [someone] who’s likely to be called neither.

I admit that I was angry–any use of the word does that to me–though I understood the point he was making, he didn’t exercise good judgment in making it. It smacked a little too much of someone saying “Oh marginalized person, I am not one of you, but I understand your plight. See how I speak as if I am one of you.” It wasn’t enough to make me stop following him as I enjoy his movie reviews and insight into cinema. I didn’t even think he’d see my tweet, I’m just one of 300 thousand followers after all. But later on he did apologize, after a fashion, with another tweet.

I wouldn’t have even known about the follow-up tweet if I hadn’t noticed a bunch of new followers between yesterday & today and searched for my username in Google. I was quoted in a story that made the rounds. I only wish I’d had room to actually spell out “someone” but old-school retweeting is hard core on sticking to 140 characters. Still, being quoted is always nice, as is being able to see your words pop up in Google results, but most importantly it was kept in context.***

Cheers: Got a link this morning about a letter from a “98 year old woman in the UK” to her bank.

I am writing to thank you for bouncing my cheque with which I endeavoured to pay my plumber last month. By my calculations, three nanoseconds must have elapsed between his presenting the cheque and the arrival in my account of the funds needed to honour it. I refer, of course, to the automatic monthly deposit of my Pension, an arrangement, which, I admit, has been in place for only thirty eight years. You are to be commended for seizing that brief window of opportunity, and also for debiting my account £30 by way of penalty for the inconvenience caused to your bank.

Sadly, the letter has been going around the internet since at least 2003, attributed to various sources, but actually originating as a humor piece which has been edited and updated since then. See the original letter at Snopes, but it’s still enough to give one a good chuckle.

TGIF, y’all! :mrgreen:

* I don’t think I’ve written about any of the times I’ve been called the word while growing up: by classmates, by random people driving by and once even by a child I was babysitting. Suffice to say that while it may be tossed around more casually these days, especially in popular culture, I’ve never heard it used towards me as anything less than a demeaning insult.

** Both my brother and I could do that. Drove those Georgia public school teachers crazy.

*** Taking on Roger Ebert and having it mentioned in the media almost makes up for not having been named Best DC Blogger in the recent DC Top Tweeps contest… almost.

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5 Responses

  1. Steven Capsuto says:

    Pretty much any word in the language should be usable when preceded by phrases like “You shouldn’t call someone a…” or “the use of the word ____ was common at one time.” It is ironic that a lot of black activists got very bent out of shape a couple years ago when a presumably straight, black actor got in trouble for uttering the words “I never called him a faggot.” Surely, they argued, the context made the utterance okay. Their point, as I understand it, was that people shouldn’t be afraid of a word as long as it’s used in the right context. I agree with that.

    In any case, I think it’s hard to take seriously anyone over the age of 5 who uses expressions like “the N word,” “the B word,” etc. It sounds too much like a kid saying “Mommy, Bobby used the F word!” Serious social commentators and newscasters ought to find some better way to put across what word they mean. In some cases, using the word itself, at least on first reference, seems a reasonable option. Certainly in a university setting, and particularly a literature class, being afraid of words is at odds with the whole reason for being there.

    Which brings us to the Twain book. One main reason for teaching classic literature at any educational level – beyond improving students’ appreciation of literature and language – is that it teaches us about our past and the fact that attitudes and language change over time. If you’re going to falsify the past, you might as well just not read the book. What next? A version of “The Merchant of Venice” that replaces “Jew” with “lender”? (“Hath not a lender hands…?”)

    It’s better to use it as a teachable moment or read excerpts (intact) but not the whole book, if we’re worried that 219 repetitions is too much. Twain took great care to make sure his characters talked the way real people spoke at that time. The dialects even shift as the characters move down the river from one county to the next. To change that after the fact and keep Twain’s name on the cover as the sole author is profoundly dishonest.

  2. David Lundy says:

    You always did annoy our teachers with that, didn’t you? Especially Mama Black. 🙂

    Re: Huck Finn, I think it’s shameful that anyone would consider “revising” any published work of any kind, or in any way; be it a book, a religious text, painting, statue, etc. These things were created in the mindset of the period and reflect the thinking of the person or people of that era. To “revise” them is to rob our children of the opportunity to understand how different cultures and eras thought.

    How do we learn from history if we sanitize it to suit our (current) moral sensibilities? I agree, the “N” word has no place in our current vernacular, but to strike it from the annals of history simply because it’s offensive today is simply idiotic. Why not strike the brutal pagan Aztec blood rituals from history? Or the Holocaust? The Japanese atrocities against the Chinese in WWII? The Cherokee Trail of Tears? The Crusades? Slavery? Stalin’s regime in Russia? Where does it stop?

    It’s a sad commentary on the “Pussification of America”. Americans are unwilling to face and deal with the brutal realities of life; instead, we lobby to deflect blame for our mistakes. We look to cover over or change those things which we find uncomfortable or offensive, rather than acknowledge their presence and change the very reasons which caused these things to occur in the first place!

    So suck it up, America! Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Changing history won’t make it any better.

  3. Esprix says:

    You, of course, rule. 🙂

    As someone who works in a library, the idea of that book tears out a little bit of my soul. We’ve exchanged education for just plain lazy, and that’s not right. This is why PC gets a bad name.

    I’ve been exploring white male heterosexual privilege lately, and it’s astounding the ignorance people display. Maybe I’m just too much of a fucking liberal, but how hard is it to see that there are inequities in the world? And, by rights, I may been An Oppressed Minority, but I can also accept that I am also influence by privilege, and have to tread carefully and a tad more open-mindedly when dealing with cultures and lives that are different from my own. Heck, I’m even interested in the ongoing debate about cultural appropriation in regard to the SCA, and I’m coming to understand it’s quite a minefield.

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