Lamar W. Hankins : The Bowdlerizing of Huckleberry Finn

Huck and Jim. Image from Teachers.ash.org.

The bowdlerizing of Huckleberry Finn

By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / January 19, 2011

A recent commentary by Leonard Pitts in the Miami Herald explained a significant problem with publication of a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The new edition removes all use of the words “nigger” and “Injun,” substituting less offensive words.

In Pitts’s view, the scrubbing of these words robbed the novel of its authenticity by ignoring Twain’s purpose in using the language that he chose and ignoring the social, cultural, and historical context in which the novel takes place.

Pitts explains, “Huck Finn is a funny, subversive story about a runaway white boy who comes to locate the humanity in a runaway black man and, in the process, vindicates his own.” I’ve always had a similar view of the novel, but it never occurred to me until reading Pitts’s words that I had had an experience similar to Huck’s, of becoming aware of another’s humanity, an experience shared by many others and one that may be universal.

I lived in Vidor, Texas, a rural community with a well-deserved reputation for racism, until I was four years old, when my family moved to the oil refinery town of Port Arthur. When I was seven, my parents, both of whom worked at refineries (my father as a machinist, my mother as an RN), hired a black woman to look after me and my younger brother. During the summer that I was 10 years old, I had many serious discussions with her about the ways of the world, especially about race relations and how African-Americans had been treated throughout the South since the beginning of this country.

My guess is that Lutricia Valore was about 25 years old in 1955. We called her by her nickname, Lou. The culture at that time in the south permitted even young children to address black women by their first name or whatever other informal name might apply. Lou cooked our food, cleaned our house, supervised our play, and took care of us when we had an accident or were sick.

She was my first sociology and history teacher. She told me about slavery. About having to sit in the back of the bus. About “separate but equal” schools. About being mistreated and disrespected by many whites. About segregation. About the slums in which she and her two children and husband lived. About the frequent humiliation she felt.

After reading Leonard Pitts’s words, I realized that Lou had transformed herself in my child’s eyes from the hired help to a person with fears, concerns, problems, and joys common to all human beings. She was my caretaker and became my friend. When she told me about how she was treated, I reacted first with disbelief that such a kind, decent person would be treated so badly. Then it made me angry. I wanted to do something about it, not recognizing that 10-year-old children can’t rectify society’s wrongs. I started looking around to see if I could find any of the circumstances she had described. I did not have to look far.

When I observed the city buses going down the street, I saw that all the blacks were in the back and the whites were in the front. When I went to the Weingarten grocery store with my mother, I saw the water fountains, side by side, one marked “Whites only,” and the other marked “Colored.”

In my first public rebellion against the established order, I decided to drink from the “Colored” fountain to see if the water tasted different from that in the “Whites only” fountain. I knew that my action violated accepted custom, but I did it anyway, and no one complained. I continued drinking from that fountain as long as my family shopped at that store. Later, when I rode the city buses to junior high school, I purposely sat in the back.

As a result of what I had learned from Lou, I continued my rebellion through the years by arguing about the nature of slavery with a junior high school history teacher and about job discrimination with a Sunday school teacher who did not want blacks working at the refinery because they would compete with him for jobs, an unrecognized acknowledgment that blacks could be as qualified as he to do the same work.

Huck Finn recognized Jim as a person of value because he came to know him at a basic human level. He saw that Jim had to make decisions about right and wrong, good and bad, fair and unfair, just as he did.

Both Jim and Huck were seeking freedom. To each one, freedom meant something slightly different, just as it means different things for different people all over the globe. And the novel deals with other human problems as well, including lying, deceit, cruelty, moral values, the role of family in a person’s life (Did Huck and Jim become a family?), selfishness, and hypocrisy.

All of these human issues are important for both children and adults to figure out for themselves. If a novel set shortly before the Civil War can help us discuss these issues, it has to be of value. If we take away from it its context, we rob it of some of that value as an educational tool. If some people are offended by the words common to the period and those words are censored, what does that take from the novel? For one thing, it blunts the razor-sharp edge of Twain’s depiction of racism in America.

We haven’t been able to have a broad, serious discussion about race and race relations in the 125 years since Huckleberry Finn was published. After all, we are still arguing about the reasons for the Civil War, in the face of documentary evidence that slavery and race were at its heart.

Now, we learn that a production of the play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone by the late, widely respected African-American playwright August Wilson is being forbidden by the superintendent of schools in Waterbury, Connecticut, because it contains the word “nigger” in several places.

Removing offensive words from the pages of Huckleberry Finn or any other literary work will make that important discussion about race less likely, and if our children read such works in a bowdlerized form, there will be no reason for them to even confront what such language is all about.

[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins.]

The Rag Blog

This entry was posted in Rag Bloggers and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Lamar W. Hankins : The Bowdlerizing of Huckleberry Finn

  1. Anonymous says:

    The KiteRunner by Khaled Hosseini
    considers many of the issues you bring up. The world is hard; and made harder by our erroneous opinions; we all have to hold hands to get around the sharp bits of humanity.
    mps

  2. Mariann says:

    Samuel Clemens, who wrote as Mark Twain, was a sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued social critic of the world as he encountered it, and of human nature. Anyone with a bare acquaintance with Twain’s other work can have no doubt that his use of language in his novels was deliberate, intentional, and integral to his intent.
    Offensive racial slurs perhaps find in such literary works today their only redeeming social value: as reminders of what once was, and how it made you feel to see decent people treated like animals.
    I, too, drank the ‘Colored’ water in downtown Ft. Worth. My pals and I rode in the back of the buses, too, until we saw that we were taking some poor tired black working person’s seat, and that they HAD no choice. Then we got up right quick and had them sit while we stood in the aisle.

  3. Brother Jonah says:

    My mom, a native of Minnesota and had traveled to such exotic places as Taiwan, Austria and California (where she met dad) came to Texas for the first time in 1958, Dad was stationed in one of the undeclared wars of the era in Algeria,
    Mom was the daughter of an Army sergeant. Dad met her while in the Air Force, he and Grandpa were stationed at bases in Merced, California. She came to Cleburne Texas where my dad was raised. He was considered sort of a rebel because he actually left Johnson Co. and saw the Rest of the World.
    My older sister was a baby, at the Ft Worth train depot mom took her into the restroom to change her.
    The Colored restroom.
    Dad’s aunt came to Ft Worth to pick her up and drive her down to Cleburne.
    There’s a joke among the more progressive people in Cleburne that all the maps there end at the county line and the rest is blank except for the warning “Here be Dragons”.
    My great aunt was mortified that she had used the Colored restroom. Dad told her later that she could have been lynched for that.

    They had the Hen Committee welcome her to the family, of course, everybody curious to see Leroy’s yankee bride.
    She had a picture from her senior year in high school, one of her clasmates was
    (gasp!) black. They were horrified.
    It’s not like we’re pure white either, we’re a mixed culture family, White and Indian.

  4. Brother Jonah says:

    That was in the late 50s.13 years after dad’s great uncle died, a Confederate veteran from a Cherokee brigade.
    He had enlisted at age 15, took a Minie-ball upside the head at age 18 near the close of the war, doc told him it would kill him. 80 years later, it did.

    Huck Finn was written at a time when Mark Twain could have been lynched for what he wrote. A Black man, Nigger Jim, who was more of a father to Huck than Huck’s own pappy was.
    Arguably the smartest person in the book, despite being forbidden by law to learn to read. Huck was literate against his Pappy’s wishes.
    Tom and Huck in the previous book had taken a dead cat to the cemetery to cure a wart. Huck had suggested it because “them niggers know everything about superstition, just ignorant that way”.
    Huck’s daddy, when he came back to claim Huck at the start of Huckleberry Finn, Huck knew it was his Pap because of his boot prints in the snow.
    Hardly a religious man, the illiterate and extremely ignorant Pappy Finn had his boot heel nailed in a cross… so the devil wouldn’t reach up and grab his ankles.
    Mr Clemens was playing with much fire there. He pointedly refers to Southern Whites as being arrogant about their ignorance. Even the ones who could read and write.
    This at a time when America’s premier and most effective Terror Organization, the Klan, were killing people for daring to run schools for the recently freed slaves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.