Twain Revisions

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture

voice of the damned wrote:
Well, I would recommend reading the editor's introduction to the new edition. From what he says, it does sound as if he has encountered a signficant amount of African-American objections to the book's language.

link

Thanks for that, votd. I don't have a source for this, but while I was discussing this with a friend, she told me that Lawrence Hill's Book of Negroes was published in the US (and Australia) as Someone Knows My Name. Apparently, at first Hill thought this was just offended bourgeois liberal sensibilities and fought the publisher over the change; but after talking to African-American activists in the US who also objected to the name, he relented. As can be imagined, it's a frought word everywhere, but particularly so in the USian context. The NAACP has tried to have Huck Finn banned for the word, for example.

torontoprofessor wrote:
Catchfire, do you have a source for your assertion that this word was not considered fine or simply colloquial when Twain wrote? I'd be very interested to see a discussion of that question. Either way, it certainly affects the interpretation of the work.

The OED cites instances of the n-word as "hostile" when used by non-blacks as early as 1775, and "depriciatory" by blacks as early as 1834. It also cites usage by American blacks as a favourable term as early as 1831, suggesting that the move to "reclaim" the word was already underway. I'd say the social and historical complexity of the word was already in forceful effect.

al-Qa-bong wrote:
Does anyone else find it odd that there are people out there who think that constantly referring to Black people as "slaves" is a progressive move?

Yes! I had the exact same thought. Why is "slave" less offensive than "nigger"? Particularly in the historical context when Jim actually was a slave.

 I do think it's important to point out that while I don't support sanitizing this book (one of my all-time favourites), I also have never encountered the n-word-as-insult in my lived experience, so I don't think I fully comprehend its potency.

voice of the damned

That reminds me of an anecdote that may have some relevance to this discussion.

In elementary school, we had a teacher who told us one day that that there was this absolutely horrible song on the radio that made fun of short people. She went on about this for quite some time, detailing how offensive the lyrics were to short people. The real clincher was when she told us "And you should be upset about this too. YOU are short people". (I guess she was technically correct, though in about ten years, almost all of us were a lot taller than she was when she delivered her harangue.)

Anyway, suffice it to say, irony and satire might sometimes go over the heads of school teachers.

 

 

al-Qa'bong

Quote:

I also have never encountered the n-word-as-insult in my lived experience, so I don't think I fully comprehend its potency.

 

I had a discussion about this a couple of months ago with a Black woman who told us about some guys who pointed her out and said "Look at that "n" over there!"  She said "Where?"  Her position is that she isn't bothered by being called that word, as it doesn't in any way describe her, so she isn't offended by it. 

I have to say, this was a tough discussion for me, as she was freely throwing out the "ns" while I was merely referring to the word in my version of a polite manner. 

voice of the damned

Catchfire wrote:

Yes! I had the exact same thought. Why is "slave" less offensive than "nigger"? Particularly in the historical context when Jim actually was a slave.

Well, I would say that "slave" is a non-offensive word, used to describe an offensive situation. Whereas the point of "n----" isn't simply to describe something offensive, the point of that word is to give offense.

Another way of putting it...

I might say "Harriet Tubman was a slave". And I'm not being racist, I'm just describing a fact about her life: she had been enslaved. 

But I wouldn't say "Harriet Tubman was a n----". Well, unless I was a racist myself.

 

 

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Quote:
I had a discussion about this a couple of months ago with a Black woman who told us about some guys who pointed her out and said "Look at that "n" over there!"  She said "Where?"  Her position is that she isn't bothered by being called that word, as it doesn't in any way describe her, so she isn't offended by it.

That's a very different response than, say, Frantz Fanon's.

Quote:
Well, I would say that "slave" is a non-offensive word, used to describe an offensive situation. Whereas the point of "n----" isn't simply to describe something offensive, the point of that word is to give offense.

No, that's not strictly true. What if I said "Harriet Tubman was just a slave"? Is that "non-offensive"? Similarly, there are plenty of instances where the n-word is used in a non-offensive, even complimentary or fraternal way. What matters, as always, is context. So, we might ask, if the n-word is offensive, and I substitute "slave" for it in all 217 cases, how does that make it less offensive?

I think if anything it shows that the US has made a fetish out of this word and are unwilling to acknowledge its deep historical and cultural debt.

voice of the damned

Cathfire:

Well, not knowing anything else about the overall context of our hypothetical(which I will take the credit/blame for), if you said she was "just a slave", it would be the word "just" that renders the sentence offensive. Since you're going beyond simply describing her status in relation to the economic system, to saying that that status is the sole defining aspect of her character. I was imaginging a situation where I would have reason to mention that Tubman had been enslaved, but in which I would also be giving other facts about her life.

But yeah, I see what you mean, given the context of Huck Finn, since there the word is used by characters who(Huck and a few others accepted), likely do regard Jim as nothing more than a slave.  

  

 

Unionist

6079_Smith_W wrote:

Also, I am not trying to put forward an absolute answer to whether Twain's works should be allowed in schools; as a non-black person I wouldn't presume to do so.

Heh.

Well, as a "non-black" person, I am absolutely saying that Twain's works should be "allowed" in schools and everywhere else.

This discussion is getting hard to believe.

I find the Constitution of Canada grossly offensive, because it trumpets the supremacy of some deadbeat asshole that goes by the name of "God". But I think I'll still "allow" it in schools.

Oh, and the religious folks have no say over this - only us atheists, the ones who might take offence.

Have I got this ludicrous logic right?

 

6079_Smith_W

On the subject of banning, there's a link to this article on the wikipedia page devoted to the word:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/mar/01/usa.edpilkington

While the resolution is merely symbolic, the notion of making songs which contain the word ineligible for Grammy nominations might do more harm than good if it ever were part of a law which had teeth.

Also, I am more alarmed about publishing bowdlerized editions than I am of keeping certain material out of schools. I personally am in favour of allowing it into schools, but even if that were denied, one still has the freedom to read it in public.

Start gutting the book and putting out corrected editions and you are one step on the road to a complete ban - something which I see as far worse.

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

It's not unreasonable, Unionist, to point out that the lived experience of those on the receiving end of words meant to convey hate and violence is different from those who have historically benefitted from that hate. Or would you like to lecture to the NAACP how they should interpret the book of a late-nineteenth century novelist who liked to frequent minstrel shows and enjoyed the occasional racist joke?

6079_Smith_W

Unionist wrote:

6079_Smith_W wrote:

Also, I am not trying to put forward an absolute answer to whether Twain's works should be allowed in schools; as a non-black person I wouldn't presume to do so.

Heh.

Well, as a "non-black" person, I am absolutely saying that Twain's works should be "allowed" in schools and everywhere else.

This discussion is getting hard to believe.

I find the Constitution of Canada grossly offensive, because it trumpets the supremacy of some deadbeat asshole that goes by the name of "God". But I think I'll still "allow" it in schools.

Oh, and the religious folks have no say over this - only us atheists, the ones who might take offence.

Have I got this ludicrous logic right?

 

 

I said "absolute" because like it or not there are plenty of people who think otherwise; and I also made it clear how I feel about the issue.

Jesus Christ. I have had enough people in here try to tell me I don't know what I am talking about and can't speak because I don't understand the perspective of someone who might be adversely affected by it. Please don't turn around and give me the gears because I acknlwledge that my understanding might not be the final word on something. I don't make the rules here.

Because for that matter, your word is not the final one either, and excuse me if I do not think it is quite as cut and dried or ludicrous as you claim.

Unionist

I'm not talking about pointing out lived experience, Catchfire. I'm talking about keeping books out of schools because someone is offended by them. I'm talking about 6079's comment that a "non-black" person shouldn't presume to say Twain's books should be disallowed - implying rather strongly that "black" persons should be heeded on that issue.

Perhaps "non-Jewish persons" shouldn't have presumed to speak to [url=http://www.rabble.ca/babble/anti-racism-news-and-initiatives/another-boo... attempt to ban books in Ontario schools[/url], because Gentiles ought not to lecture Jews as to how they should interpret literature painting Jewish settlers in a bad light?

I was responding to 6079 - nothing else. I make no comment as to whether Twain is racist, or just describing racism, or opposing racism - not because I think it's unimportant, but because I think the subject of the thread is whether some Alabama publisher is doing a good thing by censoring Twain.

And when the time comes to discuss whether the Merchant of Venice should be taught in schools - or whether the name "Shylock" should be sanitized to "Scheinberg" - I do trust that we will allow the non-Jews to weigh in as well - please?

 

6079_Smith_W

Quote:

I'm talking about 6079's comment that a "non-black" person shouldn't presume to say Twain's books should be disallowed - implying rather strongly that "black" persons should be heeded on that issue.

 

That's not what I said, Unionist. I think I have said quite a few times in this discussion that I favour allowing the book in schools, and that I am opposed to censoring. That should be evidence enough that I think I have a right to speak, my race, class and gender notwithstanding.

I simply said that my opinion is not the absolute and final word on the matter.

Clear?

(edit)

In fact, if the question were to be put to our school board I would be quite vocal about it because it affects my children. I wouldn't necessarily presume to push my opinion in all school divisions with the same force.

 

Unionist

6079_Smith_W wrote:

Quote:

I'm talking about 6079's comment that a "non-black" person shouldn't presume to say Twain's books should be disallowed - implying rather strongly that "black" persons should be heeded on that issue.

 

That's not what I said, Unionist.

Here's what you said:

6079_Smith_W wrote:
Also, I am not trying to put forward an absolute answer to whether Twain's works should be allowed in schools; as a non-black person I wouldn't presume to do so.

Maybe I misunderstood it. But what I thought I understood, I didn't like, and I said so in my usual noisy fashion. If you want to retract that, I'll apologize and back off. If you want to defend it, then do so.

 

6079_Smith_W

@ Unionist.

Nope. We're cool. As I said, I think the word that might have caused the misunderstanding is "absolute". Also, I don't think (though I left unsaid) that  the word of one black person is the final one either, since clearly not all black people are of one mind about this issue either.

But I think it is clear that a black person has an understanding of the word that you and I do not, and therefore has an important perspective on the question that cannot be ignored. That is why I feel my opinion is not an absolute one.

But again, although I take school restictions seriously, I am less concerned with that than I am with  censoring the book itself. If the text is unaltered one is at least free to read it.  

There are enough examples - from Grimm to the Bible to the historical record - where original thoughts, ideas and facts have been completey erased.

(edit)

Ooops.

I just re-read and realized you were asking for a retraction. No. I don't retract, though I hope my clarification will suffice.

To use an example, I could see a situation in which a specific school might want to not expose its students to that word (or something else) because of a particular problem. If they came to that decision through a real consensus I would respect that decision, just like I would respect the restrictions that are put on any safe or cloistered space, where ordinary rules and freedoms don't necessarily apply.

You may see it differently. Fine.

On the butchering of literature I am much less inclined to compromise, however.

 

 

 

 

al-Qa'bong

This idea is the literary equivalent of the Taliban shooting artillery at statues that they find offensive.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

voice of the damned wrote:
Well, not knowing anything else about the overall context of our hypothetical(which I will take the credit/blame for), if you said she was "just a slave", it would be the word "just" that renders the sentence offensive. Since you're going beyond simply describing her status in relation to the economic system, to saying that that status is the sole defining aspect of her character. I was imaginging a situation where I would have reason to mention that Tubman had been enslaved, but in which I would also be giving other facts about her life.

What I was trying to point out, votd, was that calling someone a "slave" in antebellum America was not simply a reference to their vocation, but a reductive indictment of their whole person and conditions of existence. It skirts their full humanity and condemns them as a slave and only a slave. I'm not sure I buy your grammatical analysis either: if "just" is the offensive source, what happens if, later in our hypothetical conversation, I dispense with the modifier "just" after having used it at first? Aren't I imbuing the word "slave" with the same nasty connotations?

Incidentally, I'm also not alone in this: many historians no longer use the word "slave" when talking about conditions of slavery, but rather "enslaved person"; in order to point out that a "slave" is not a copulative object, but an coercive act upon the subject.

6079_Smith_W

Anyone hear the piece this morning on CBC Q on re-releasing old Looney TUnes and Bob Clampett films  (specifically "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs").

A very interesting interview, and quite relevant to this discussion, particularly the comparison and contrast with imagery in modern hip-hop culture.

DOn't have the link, but I am sure you can find it, as well as those old films, if you are interested (I am already familiar with them).

voice of the damned

absentia wrote:

voice of the damned wrote:

Well, saying that something may not be the best choice for classroom reading and discussion is not the same thing as saying that it should be taken out of the school libraries.

A very fine line, indeed. Usually, the books that are contraversial for classroom are also problematic in the libraries frequented by youth, the idea being to protect vulnerable minds, in which endeavour, leaving it on the shelves for the young to read unsupervised is potentially more harmful than guiding them through it in the classroom.

Well, I could imagine cases where a teacher thinks that a book might be unsuitable for classroom use in a particular class at a particular time, but it wouldn't neccessarily mean that she wants it removed from the school library.

My high-school library contained an edition of Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers. I don't know if anyone here has read that, but it's not the kind of thing I personally would feel comfortable reading aloud to a class full of high-school students.  

voice of the damned

What I was trying to point out, votd, was that calling someone a "slave" in antebellum America was not simply a reference to their vocation, but a reductive indictment of their whole person and conditions of existence. It skirts their full humanity and condemns them as a slave and only a slave.

Catchfire:

I take your point that, when a 19th Century white American used the word "slave", he may have very well have been trying to convey the same basic meaning that would be conveyed by the word "n*****".

But, if we're talking about usage in a 21st Century classroom, I'd still have to say that the two words don't pack an equal punch in terms of being problematic. I've been reading a few forums etc on this topic, and one thing I've seen brought up several times is anecdotes about African-American kids having to endure out-loud readings and disccussions of the text, in some cases involving racist white kids who clearly relish the opportunity to utter word aloud under a respectable guise. I don't think the word "slave" would carry quite the same potential.

Incidentally, I'm also not alone in this: many historians no longer use the word "slave" when talking about conditions of slavery, but rather "enslaved person"; in order to point out that a "slave" is not a copulative object, but an coercive act upon the subject.

Okay. You're a mod, right? Let's say starts a thread in "Babblers Helping Babblers" and posts "Hi. I'm a history major looking for information about slave uprisings in the antebellum south. Does anyone have any interesting sources to share on this topic?"

Now imagine someone posts the same question, but with "n*****" instead of "slave". I'm pretty sure your reactions to the two posts would be quite different. In the first case, you might give the poster some reasons why "enslaved person" is preferable to "slave" as the terminology, but I'm guessing you'd otherwise let the post stand as is. In the second instance, I would expect the person to be banned on sight. The offensiveness of the word would require no explanation.

 

 

 

 

 

absentia

Well, if it's about the comfort-level of teaching a particular text, James Baldwin is pretty much out, too, right? But that doesn't mean we have to 'fix' (repair, improve, neuter, emasculate...) his language.

That's my whole argument.

Ban it/ don't ban it. Buy it/ don't buy it. Stock it/ don't stock it. Teach it/ don't teach it. Burn it/ don't burn it. I don't care, just so you leave it the way the author wrote it.

voice of the damned

Absentia:

I basically agree about the all-or-nothing approach to teaching a text in the classroom. My previous comments were specifically about the difference between keeping a book out of a classroom, and keeping it out of the library.

One commentator on another forum made the point that, if this bowdlerization is to be applied consistently, it would result in a lot of African-American literature being either eviscerated or not taught at all, since many African-American writers employ the same language that is being cut out of Huckleberry Finn.

 

absentia

What they* seem to be unclear about is the purpose of the change, or reason for banning.

*In this case, the publisher/ distributor. In many cases, the schoolboard or librarian. Often, the defenders of censorship. Almost always, the concerned parents. If you know what you want to acxcomplish and why, the problem becomes relatively simple: convince or defeat the people who disagree.  Then, the policy can be applied consistently and effectively.

Caissa

Cross Country Checkup covered this topic yesterday. Only caught bits and pieces of it since American Football was on the telly.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

There were a couple good comments, but my favourite was from the ten-year-old girl who asked if the book was okay to read unbowdlerized by her parents and her grandparents, why shouldn't she be afforded the same opportunity?

However, I heard the same myth propagated on CBC that I objected to upthread--that when Twain wrote the n-word was somewhat innocuous and colloquial. It reminds me of how I frequently hear North Americans talk about how in Scotland, the "c-word" isn't as offensive as it is here because it's so commonplace. Of course, that's nonsense. While its usage may be more common (although not as common as movies and books about Scotland would have you believe) its meaning is the same: it's rooted in a deep, vile and violent hatred of women.

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