ARTICLE

N-Word Or No N-Word? That is the Question

By now, most people have heard about the new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn being released next month. In it, the n-word has been slashed 219 times and replaced by “slave.” Discussions over this edition have been loud, particularly in literary and education circles. Erasing the n-word would, theoretically, free teachers to teach Huck Finn again. After all, year after year, the novel appears on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged or banned books.But what have we heard from our young people about this issue?

By now, most people have heard about the new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn being released next month. In it, the n-word has been slashed 219 times and replaced by “slave.” Discussions over this edition have been loud, particularly in literary and education circles. Erasing the n-word would, theoretically, free teachers to teach Huck Finn again. After all, year after year, the novel appears on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged or banned books.
 
But what have we heard from our young people about this issue?
 
On our first day back from winter break, I challenged my students to read about the controversy and then to enter the debate. This year, they have already read Of Mice and Men, in which the character Crooks is victimized with the slur. We are about to begin To Kill a Mockingbird, which is often challenged for its use of the n-word.

I teach in a community in which books have not been banned—at least so far. For this debate, I asked my students many questions, among them, “If I could have given you a copy of Of Mice and Men that did not have the n-word, should I have done so?” 

“Absolutely not,” was the sentiment of the majority of my eighth-grade students of all races. Leave Mark Twain alone. And John Steinbeck. And Harper Lee. We are mature. We have heard worse. We trust our teachers to put the word in context, to teach about the word.

My students seem to understand the danger inherent in fiddling with history.   Perhaps Andrew explained this best.

“…the n-word being replaced with slave, slave being replaced with servant, servant being replaced with assistant, assistant being replaced with secretary, and, before you know it, there were no slaves.”

Zachary echoed his concerns.

“Tainting Mark Twain’s words would increasingly soften and lighten the load that he is placing on our shoulders, until the shadow of slavery and the use of the ‘n-word’ is a tall tale.”

They are 14-year-olds and want to be treated maturely. They want to be viewed as capable of handling complex texts and emotionally charged words.

I feel like cheering when they so eloquently grasp the destructive power of censorship.  

But then, I am not a 14-year-old African-American girl, like Jordan.

Jordan does not often offer opinions in class discussion, but in an online forum she boldly stated,  “Yes, I do agree with the choice to remove the n-word, because that word makes me feel uncomfortable and makes me want to throw the book in a pit of fire and dance on the ashes!”

I don’t want Jordan to dance on the ashes. I want her to love literature, to feel empowered by it. I want her to read the n-word and understand why the writer used it, to put it in context. But ultimately, I doubt that I will be able to convince Jordan of anything. I suspect that she will feel what she feels—angry and disenfranchised.

Do I ignore Jordan’s pleas because, after all, she is a small voice in an anti-censorship parade? Do we reconcile the tension by offering two stacks of books, one with original versions and one with the “purified” adaptations, allowing students to choose? Do we silence our students (and our parents) and make decisions based solely on our own moral sense of the power of words and purpose of literature?

The removal of the n-word will not begin and end with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So as teachers, we must decide as a matter of philosophy whose voices will reign.   

What do you think?
 
Baker is a middle school language arts teacher in Missouri.