Good Question: Is It OK To Edit A Classic?

By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It’s a book that almost all of us read in school. But more and more public school districts are dropping The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum because of fears over the N-word.

Now, a Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books plan to release a version of Huckleberry Finn, that elminates the N-word in favor of the word “slave.”

A Washington Post writer compared the move to renaming “War and Peace” to just “Peace” because war is unpleasant.

“This book has been through a lot of editorial changes,” said Mike Reynolds, a literature professor at Hamline University.

“Twain made a number of changes based on editorial concerns about repeating himself and not reaching audiences in the best way,” he said.

As to whether removing the N-word is a good idea, Reynolds was torn.

“Push comes to shove, I’d rather not have any censorship,” said Reynolds.

However, many public schools are not teaching the book, because they don’t want to deal with the controversy over the word.

“I would rather see opportunities for students to be able to engage it, for teachers to be able to teach the book. And if that lets people do that, that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he said.

“I think it’s important not to sanitize the history. I think it’s important if you’re going to teach the book, you’re teaching the history — your teaching the concept,” said Enid Logan, a University of Minnesota sociologist who specializes in race in America.

She noted that young people are hearing the N-word all the time in hip-hop music and Hollywood movies.

“Because of the fact they hear the N-word, it’s even more important to leave it in,” she argued.

“So many people are raised with this idea of colorblindness. This idea that the best way to get over racism is not to talk about it and to pretend it doesn’t exist,” she said. Instead, she said confronting the issue is the better way to go.

Sylvia and Ken Gilbert worked to get Huck Finn off the required list at St. Louis Park High School in 2003. They were successful at getting students the choice to not read the book, according to Sylvia Gilbert.

“It’s not that you want to erase the history,” said Mrs. Gilbert. “But high school teachers that teach that class are not prepared. They look at one angle of what the book represents.”

Gilbert said that teachers are unprepared to navigate complex issues of race, and the word makes African-American students feel uncomfortable.

Of course, just because one publisher is putting out a version with the word “slave,” educators will still be able to select a version with the N-word in it.

“We’ll vote with our pocketbooks,” said Reynolds.

“I think the reason of taking it out makes it remote, abstract, distant,” said Logan. Which is both she and Reynolds said, they’d prefer to see the original, historical terminology in the book.

“It’s in there 219 times. Clearly it’s part of vernacular, setting the context of the era,” said Logan. Unlike a film, for young people, a novel can be “their only portal of access into that historical context.”

WCCO-TV’s Jason DeRusha Reports

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