”N-word” vs “Slave,” The Media’s Biased Coverage of Huck Finn – Part 2

This is the second post of a two part series. Here’s a recap from part 1:

Alan Gribben, a Mark Twain scholar and professor at the University of Montgomery, partnered with NewSouth Books to replace “n***er” with “slave” in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”  He wanted to make the book accessible to schools that had banned it from the classroom because of the excessive use of “n***er.”   Many people were outraged by this and called it censorship.  Some of the major media outlets were biased in their coverage of this story.

The New York Times invited 11 authors and academics to answer the question, “Do Word Changes Alter Huckleberry Finn?” The  contributors’ racial makeup is as follows:  1 Black woman, 2 Black men, 1 Chinese-American woman, 1 Bi-racial man (Black and Jewish), 3 white women and 3 white men.

Of this group, nine people were in favor of teaching the book as is.  A Black male professor recounted his jarring experience reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in high school and hearing his white classmates use “n***er.”  Despite this, he feels that ultimately this isn’t about censorship but instead a school’s right to choose their version.  One white male professor feels teachers should be allowed to read the “slave” version to school children and that later in high school or college they could be introduced to the original version.

I know the white professor isn’t the only person who shares that view, but the Times doesn’t seem to have gone in search of them for this particular article. Nine out of eleven. What ever happened to balance.


Parker/Spitzer  was a TV program co-hosted by Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer on CNN.   In January 2011, the show invited two guests, John McWhorter and Michaela Angela Davis, to discuss the new edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”   John said he’s insulted by the removal of the n-word because it implies Blacks don’t have a sense of irony and are incapable of differentiating between its various uses.  He even compared the NewSouth publishers to Southern racist congressman from 100 years ago.  Parker, who is white, largely agreed with him.  Michaela said the NewSouth version robs white students of having a discussion about race.  She said if we’re denied the chance to discuss language in it’s proper context and environment, particularly a word with this kind of energy,  then all students miss out on an opportunity to learn more about each other.  Spitzer and John can be heard agreeing with her off camera.  All four people at the desk were in favor of the original version.  There was no opposition.  On its face it appears as if this show or network held a certain position on this topic and invited guests who would further their position.  And the fact that both guests were Black was probably not a coincidence.


Countdown on MSNBC – Censorship or Sensibility

At the start of the segment, Keith Olberman asks what would Twain think of  “the scenario in which the attitude towards racial epithets of all denominations had so changed” that a slur that appears in his greatest work is responsible for keeping it out of the hands of kids.  Keith goes on to say that a fellow Twain scholar, Thomas Wortham of UCLA, criticized Gribben for replacing “n***er” with “slave.”  First of all Blacks are a race.  The word “denomination” usually connotes a religious group.  Secondly, Keith’s intro lumps “all” slurs together and makes it appear as if they’re equal.  He clouds the fact that the epithet that targets Blacks is explosive due to its brutal history.  Thirdly, the “attitude” towards that slur has “changed” somewhat but there are still plenty of attitudes that have remained the same.  Lastly, he quotes a prof who is opposed to the NewSouth version but Keith doesn’t interview academics or anyone who feels it’s a viable alternative.  At least not on this particular show.

Keith interviews Melissa Harris-Perry, a Black female professor, who feels that the n-word should not be purged from Twain’s original version and that “slave” shouldn’t replace the n-word.   She says even though the n-word has become a part of pop culture, she’d rather have the kids encounter it in their class with a teacher and peers where they can have a thoughtful discussion about the origin of the word.  She’s Keith’s only guest.

He says people assume Gribben made the change in response to teachers dealing with “complaints” from parents, “do-gooders,” or “complaints from overly sensitive people.”  That’s how Keith labels those who have opinions contrary to his.  That last term is often used to try and silence Blacks from speaking out about racism and it dismisses Blacks as being touchy about race without just cause.



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