Mr. Clemons Must Be Spinning Like a Top

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Mark Twain with author John Lewis
Mark Twain with author John Lewis | Source

I grew up in Southwest-South Central Los Angeles in the late fifties and through the sixties, a racially turbulent time. I can remember sitting on the roof of my parent’s home in Inglewood and watching the fires burning during the Watts Riots of 1965, 6 days of turmoil carrying on not far from my grandparent’s home off of Western Avenue. I grew up in a Hispanic family environment. My mother was a first generation Mexican born to immigrants, and my father was a Missouri farm boy.

Our schools were once segregated, and then they were integrated through busing. But even before the busing, there was a good cross section of students in our school, and being young, I new nothing about racism. Kids were kids. My friends were my friends. But as racial tensions increased, the teachers were warned to be more politically correct before the phrase ever existed.

But thinking back to my fourth grade class at Daniel Freeman School, I remembered that Miss Resnick would read to us every afternoon after the PM recess. She would act out every character’s voice while she was reading and it made it all that much better.

Then along came “Huckleberry Finn”.

Miss Resnick began reading the book, but would change the “N-word” to “negro”. We were not aware of the change until one girl in the class brought an unabridged copy of the book (yes, abridged copies of these books existed then, but it was no big deal at the time) to read along with the teacher. She pointed out that her book said “nigger”. The class was silent. Saying that word was forbidden in school, lest we got sent to the Principal’s office. But Miss Resnick relented, and admitted that her book said “nigger” as well. She had admitted to censoring her reading.

We did not understand why these books used “bad words”, and she explained the historical significance behind it. We had a very good discussion about it, and the entire class agreed that we would prefer her to read it the way it was meant to be read, and not censored. It was a great learning experience on a practical level. Eventually, the school board questioned Miss Resnick’s practice and eventually squashed it, but it was too late, she had finished reading the book to the class. The following school year, Miss Resnick was gone.

But next month, NewSouth Books from Montgomery, Alabama is distributing 7,500 copies of their new “revised” versions of “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”, with “nigger” and “injun” edited out and replaced by “slave” and “Indian”.

The book is edited by Dr. Alan Gribben, a self proclaimed Mark Twain historian. Gribben is a 69-year-old English professor at Auburn University Montgomery. He was quoted as saying that “he would have opposed the change for much of his career, but he began using “slave” during public readings and found audiences more accepting. He decided to pursue the revised edition after middle school and high school teachers lamented they could no longer assign the books.”

What gets to me is that the audiences were more accepting of referring to a black person as a “slave” more so than any other word he could have chosen. At least Miss Resnick said “negro”. I think, in a sense, Mr. Gribben is a tad racist himself. But then I am entitled to my own opinion.

Gribben conceded the edited text loses some of the caustic sting but said: “I want to provide an option for teachers and other people not comfortable with 219 instances of that word.” … Gribben knows he won’t change the minds of his critics, but he’s eager to see how the book will be received by schools rather than university scholars. “We’ll just let the readers decide,” he said.

I think that Literary America is speaking out.

The book isn’t scheduled to be published until February, at a mere 7,500 copies, but Gribben has already received a flood of hateful e-mail accusing him of desecrating the novels. He said the e-mails prove the word makes people uncomfortable. “Not one of them mentions the word. They dance around it,” he said. (From NewSouthBooks.com).

I think that the word makes him uncomfortable and the people that wrote him these “hateful” e-mails were merely showing respect for his position as a professor and nothing else. It is disrespectful of Mr. Gribben to “revise” the written word of such a great author as Mark Twain.

But then Mark Twain never considered himself to be a great author:

I was sorry to have my name mentioned as one of the great authors, because they have a sad habit of dying off. Chaucer is dead, Spencer is dead, so is Milton, so is Shakespeare, and I’m not feeling so well myself.”

“The funniest things are the forbidden.”

It seems that Mr. Twain would think that this whole thing would be amusing to him. He was quite a great judge of human nature and loved to illustrate this in his writings and speaking engagements. He was a great humorist in such matters. But despite his now-negative references to the black race, he was not a racist. He was not a prejudiced man. In Harpers Magazine, September 1899, he was quoted as saying “I have no race prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse.”

“The people that's always the most anxious for to hang a nigger that hain't done just right, is always the very ones that ain't the most anxious to pay for him when they've got their satisfaction out of him .”
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

“Nature knows no indecencies; man invents them.”

But even as far back as 1902, people were trying to ban “Huckleberry Finn”:

“There's nobody for me to attack in this matter even with soft and gentle ridicule--and I shouldn't ever think of using a grown up weapon in this kind of a nursery. Above all, I couldn't venture to attack the clergymen whom you mention, for I have their habits and live in the same glass house which they are occupying. I am always reading immoral books on the sly, and then selfishly trying to prevent other people from having the same wicked good time.”
- Letter to Denver Post dated Aug. 14, 1902; also published in NY Tribune Aug. 22, 1902 (regarding banning of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the Denver Library.)

“But the truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn't anger me.”
- Letter to Mrs. F. G. Whitmore, 7 February 1907

I have never heard of anyone trying to censor Shakespeare, Hawthorne or Poe. William Faulkner wrote several stories about the human condition in the Deep South, with many references to controversial subjects, but to my knowledge was never censored or banned from any schools. I think that our society has evolved beyond the point of worrying about semantics and racial epithets in history because it was all a part of our formative years as a nation. What we have endured as a nation has made us what we are today. There is no more “majority” of one race. The “minorities” are slowly disappearing into “one nation under God”, a melting pot of humanity. But there will always be those that want to keep cracking the pot.

“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”

I appreciate what Miss Resnick did for our class. It opened my eyes a little wider to the rough road that America paved for the minorities. It explained a little more to me why the racial tensions of the time are what they were, and why there was so much anger and bitterness among the older folks of my youth.

It surprises me that an educated man such as Mr. Gribben is pursuing a venture such as this. You would think that being a Professor of English at Auburn University he would respect the history of Twain’s writing and let it be. But in keeping with Mr. Twain’s bold faced quote above, he is distorting the work as much as he pleases.

Finally, the opening quote found in “Huckleberry Finn” states: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” I think Mr. Twain left out one thing. “Anyone trying to edit this narrative, should be thrown from a bridge.”

And although Mr. Twain may be spinning like a top in his grave over all of this, he is more than likely laughing his ass off at the same time.

© 2011 by Del Banks

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Comments 3 comments

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 5 years ago from East Coast, United States

Whatever one thinks of the language used, it is unbelievable to me that one of the greatest novels of America could be changed. What next? Do we make all the classics more PC? Who is anyone to change the wording of Mark Twain?


Edoka Writes profile image

Edoka Writes 5 years ago

The way the book was written has historical relevance; that is how we were thought and spoken of and in some cases still are. I don't want my history scrubbed away; I need my children to read for themselves why that word is demeaning.


badegg profile image

badegg 5 years ago from Southern Appalachians Author

I was astonished at the number of responses I received when I asked a question regarding this issue. Check them out at http://hubpages.com/question/97028/should-mark-twa...

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