Written by
Tayari Jones
January 2011
Written by
Tayari Jones
January 2011

I am sure you have heard the news that one publisher is altering the Mark Twain Huckleberry Finn-- by removing the racial epithet "nigger" and replacing it with "slave."  I think the move is good-hearted, but wrong-headed. 


The editors of NewSouth say it's an effort to help Huckleberry Finn, which often has been banned, find its way back into classrooms. They argue that they are not censoring the novel, but updating it for 21st century sensibilities.

"Huckleberry Finn," almost always regarded as an American classic, is a story of an unlikely friendship between Huck, a white adolescent, and Jim, an enslaved black man. I find it peculiar that the concept of human chattel is not too harsh for young readers, but a six-letter word renders this work obscene.


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  • Marja McGraw

    My mother-in-law was 95 when she passed away a few years ago. She used a number of words that people would find offensive today, but she never meant them in a mean-spirited way. It was the way people spoke when she was young, and she never gave her words a second thought. They were words of habit. She grew up in the south. I never heard her use the "N" word; however, I did hear her call African Americans "colored". We are, so often, a product of our environment. Today's children need to know what things were like so they can see the changes and keep the changes coming. Just a thought.

  • Candy Fite

    Tayari~ Bless you for having the courage to begin this discussion. And I love the title of this thread!

    I'm comforted by many of the comments here and it seems for the most part, we are in agreement that it is a ridiculous decision to change the text in Twain's book. I'm moved by Rosemari's comments as she states the truth about textbooks in American classrooms. I can remember squirming in my seat when we read in history classes, knowing all the while, that information being taught to us was incorrrect. I had the privilege of dating a guy (whom I married) that always seemed to know the truths behind the lies. He not only taught me, but he has passed the facts onto our daughters. I love it when we have family discussions about history. The looks on my daughter's faces when my husband tells them the way it really was. It makes me wonder how many lives he's lived!

    About Twain's book. My 12 year old daughter just finished reading it in her AP Literature class. Hearing her discuss the story and the writing made me proud to be her mother. Also, I applaud her Lit. teacher for the way she handled the messages in the story and Twain's unique art of literature.

    Reading literature such as Huckleberry Finn as an adult, I will admit that I cringe when I come upon a word such as, I can barely bring myself to write it! "nigger" it literally makes me want to gag. It hurts to think it. I shiver and shake my head at the horridness of the times. I don't feel anger towards the author, but at the ignorance of society during that time era. Books such as Huck Finn motivate us to be better, to make a change and to be a part of the change. Why hide it?

    *To the people who want to change the text, who do you think you are? That's all this country needs, is to cover it up, make it go away--out of sight, out of mind. Please. We weren't born just yesterday or as my grandfather used to say, "I didn't just fall off the back of a turnip truck!" 


  • Gloria

    Use of the n word as a obscenity is the flaw, as it referes to ones lowest sense of self worth. As does the sense of the use of slave evoke powerful testimony from many afro American's and black communities that have against the stigma of it's imagery. Now to take a different approach to insult, people that lived during the Great Depression and were dirt poor, in bread lines, and threw themselves off of buildings bear no shame in being poor as in the same sense as what the word slave implys. It is mind boggling, as to how the insult of one word defines another.

  • Tayari Jones

    Dear Everyone, I am so overwhelmed (in a good way!) by all these comments.  This is the kind of civil constructive dialogue that we need.  I am sorry for not weighing in earlier, but I was away without decent internet connex! 

    What I find really remarkable is that most of us agree on the idea that censoring the text is a bad idea, but it's amazing to see how much diversity exists within that shared belief.  This is what nuanced conversation is all about.


    What a great way to start the King holiday!

  • I find your comment about the concept of human chattel particularly pointed and poignant. Yes, why is it that calling someone a "slave" is somehow easier for young readers to digest and assimilate?  You have it so right when you call Jim "an enslaved black man." That is very different from calling him "a slave" as if that were something inherent in his identity and not a condition forced upon him by others. This change in language suggests that the word  "slave" is somehow neutral and that it too isn't surrounded by systems of racism and oppression that accompany the word that is being excised.  If we are going to deconstruct the language in Huck Finn and discuss the book in its historical context, there is more than one word that needs to be open to this kind of analysis. As a country, we still haven't dealt with the fact that not only did slavery exist but that it was woven into the very fabric of our constitution and its legacy still pervades our culture. It's not the words that are problematic, it's the laws, values and practices that those words represent. That;s what Twain was exploring and critiquing. That's what needs an unflinching, honest and ethical national discussion. In the hands of a skillful high school English teacher, Huck Finn raw can spur that dialogue.

  • Marja McGraw

    I'm so sorry that anyone thinks they can alter history by changing a few words. This history belongs to all of us, both black and white, and that can't be changed. We hopefully learn from the way things were, but how are our kids going to learn if everything is whitewashed?

    There are plenty of things that offend me in current fiction and literature, but I certainly wouldn't expect an author to change their work because of my personal opinion.

    If we lose history and the stories of the way things were, we lose the opportunity to change things.

    Excellent comments, Tayari!

  • Eunice Boeve

    I think it's dumb or maybe just misguided. We can't change history by altering our books.  People need to know that it was the culture of the times.  Remember how Christopher Columbus was whitewashed for years. No word about enslaving the Indian people until long after I was grown. Many deny the holocaust.  Is this a step toward erasing that misery from our memories? I have a problem with schools, etc banning books, even a book glorifying Hilter. To learn the truth, we can't hide the truth.

  • Sharon D. Dillon

    @ Rosemari, Teachers don't know Zora Neale Hurston??? I have three of her books that I bought almost 20 yr ago. I learned about her from reading an Alice Walker book of essays. My senior thesis in college (1993 - I know I was old.) was on Alice Walker and the female hero. I think it is so sad that so many people are insular in their thinking. Everyone has something to teach us.

  • J. A. Carlton

    With regards to Rosemari's comment about, "what's the big deal it's all lies anyway" I wholeheartedly agree that from birth everything that children are taught, from the existence of god to astronauts walking on the moon is just the result of one big game of telephone. The bible itself wasn't written by god it was written by men and women who translated broken texts from ancient cultures that came before them, the meanings of lost language frequently misinterpreted or 'tweaked' to fit what made sense at the time. However... in the case of the chains of lies that are taught in schools to children, they come largely through text books that are written for the express purpose of teaching those lies.

    What we're talking about here is with Twain's work, is altering a classic piece of literature that is a commentary on the social times in which he lived. The book has been 'taught' in schools because it (if I recall correctly... grants it's been several decades) celebrates freedom and what's truly important when it comes to society, (that would be learning that although different, every person has something that makes them more than they're perceived to be).  It's entirely possible that I'm hugely and enormously wrong about what the book is about, however, that's what I took from it. I wouldn't have understood the horrible impact of discrimination or prejudice and its effect until much later. That's largely because I had to ask my mother, "why would someone call someone else a nigger if it's a bad thing? How could someone steal a person and make them a slave? Why don't the slaves just fight back?" and a thousand other questions that led to a greater understanding of how dangerous a racial superiority complex can be for everyone.


    So, those are the moccasins of my experience with Huck. History is written by the victors, it is tweaked and fabricated and full of lies, half truths and wishful thinking.


    Literature that is social commentary holds more truths than any homogenized history book ever will. Therefore it's my humble opinion that the editing of it is ridiculous and an Orwellian attempt to sanitize the last vestige of free thinking of the old school. They're already working on censoring the internet. When will blog posts be monitored for 'keywords' that flag federal agencies... oh wait... they already do.


  • Rosemari Banks

    Hey Rebekah.  I read all the comments first and that's what I saw.  Perhaps it's what I read between the lines and perhaps I'm more incensed about education in general because I currently have African American children attending school, and when I was attending college I encountered so many White people ignorant of the truth.  (Lit teachers who have taught for twenty years and did not even know who Zora Neale Hurston was.)  To even mention race pains them because they've been taught so many untruths that have led them to believe that they are superior and African American people and some other people of color have not been oppressed, but are impoverished and uneducated simply because they are inferior.  

  • Rosemari Banks

    Hello Sharon, I agree.  I teach my daughter everything I can think of and she is surrounded by books.  Even though Roots is fiction my daughter loved reading it in grade school and it was a gateway to an addiction for reading lots of real history books.  I'm glad you did that for your children because too many white Americans do not know the true history of this country, and have never read a book by an African American author, fiction or non-fiction.    

  • Sharon D. Dillon

    @Rosemari, You make some valid points. History throughout the ages has been written and whitewashed by the victor. I am astounded at what high school students don't know about history and literature. School years and days are so short. How do we ensure that students learn what really happened? Perhaps this is the time for parents to step up and teach their children, i.e., when my children were young I required them to watch "Roots" and other historic programs and encouraged them to ask questions.

  • Heather Weidner

    Leonard Pitts wrote a wonderful OpEd piece last week about the censorship of Twain. This is a link from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

    He makes some really good points about sugar-coating history and censorship.

  • Rebekah Webb



    Why would you think that everyone is only talking about this particular issue? It seems to me that a lot of people are talking about the bigger issue at hand, not just one word in one novel.

  • Rosemari Banks

    Hi Sussan.  Respectfully, no.  I am saying that most of the indignation expressed in the numerous comments is hypocritical dribble drabble at best.  I am saying that all textbooks in our children's classrooms are filled with omissions, alterations and out right lies that we should address.  If we can live with that, changing Twain should not be the big deal we are making it.   

  • Rosemari Banks

    Sorry, Hemings was spelled wrong.

  • Amalia Pistilli Conrad

    I agree that no book should be censored—not only removing the offensive word would amount not only to an attempt to "prettify history" but also to an acknowledgment of ignorance about historical circumstances. In Mark Twain's times, it was "ok" to use the word nigger; just as later on, African American were referred to as "colored people", another terminology that would not be acceptable today. It is stupid to change language that is historically and culturally contingent and specific; much better to leave it as it is and stimulate a debate in the classroom about these issues.

  • Rosemari Banks

    Tweaking Twain is really very appropriate. 

    My daughter is in high school and studying the first American presidents.  In the section on Thomas Jefferson it mentions nothing about the 187 slaves he owned or raping (yes, I mean rape) Sally Hemmings, his wife's half sister and fathering seven children by her.  Altering Twain is a small part of the huge rewriting of history and omission of important truths that is and has always occurred in classrooms from first grade on.  I doubt if any of you making these indignant comments about altering Twain have ever addressed the fact that what our children are taught is one altered fact after another.  If they were taught the truth the notion of white superiority would be totally undermined and white privilege seriously challenged.  African American children would begin to stop hating the beautiful color of their skin and texture of their hair, and understand that they are smart as hell!  

    We writers are supposed to be about truth.  So what the Huck is all the fuss about?

  • Marsha Browne

    Tayari Jones is right, on all counts. For anyone who isn't worried about this publishing decision, I encourage you to read Orwell's chilling account of societal censorship (the "Ministry of Information") in 1984. The sanctioned re-writing and bowdlerizing of truth, opinions or events does a disservice to everyone in the society, and deprives a people of the opportunity to learn from its mistakes. I want to make my own decisions, rather than have some authority acting in loco parentis making my decisions for me.

    This publisher's decision will no doubt increase the misunderstandings and prejudices between people, rather than lessening them, as Twain might have hoped.

  • Sally Diane Franz

    Don't forget most of the censorship came from school boards. Parents!

  • deborah

    we should not clean up history as that is how we learn why the infrastructure we inherited is so clumsy and archaic. "The Peoples History of the US" (Zinn ) breaks my heart, but also wises me up to the laws and systems that were built with fear and degradation, exploitation of 'the other' in their foundations. In order to design a just world we can be poud to hand off, we need to understand and clean up the mess. I try to do something every day because steps add up (challenge!!)

  • J. A. Carlton

    One of the problems, according to a school-teacher friend of mine, is that the districts are saying, "either tow the party line or we won't allow the book to be taught." Which personally, I think would be better, because the children would want to know what all the fuss is about, and wold pursue it on their own. After all, there is no such thing as bad press.

  • Michael N. Marcus

    Censorship feeds the dirty mind more than the four-letter word itself. --Dick Cavett


    The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen. --Tommy Smothers


    The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book. --Walt Whitman

    In 1967 I had a black friend who referred to himself as a "spade."

    In the late 1980s, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and others performed as N.W.A. ("Niggaz Wit Attitude').

    In the 21st century, some black people are comfortable using the n-word and some gay people are comfortable using the fa-word.

    Mark Twain's words should be left alone. His vocabulary reflects the time he was writing about, and a teacher should be able to make that clear.

    Besides, "slave" is an inaccurate euphemism, and inaccurate euphemisms should not be accepted in an English class. 

    Michael N. Marcus
    -- http://www.BookMakingBlog.blogspot.com
    -- http://www.Self-Pub.info
    -- Create Better Books, with the Silver Sands Publishing Series:
    -- "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults)," http://www.amazon.com/dp/0981661750

  • AngryCat

    And what about Patti Smith singing "Nigger, Nigger,Nigger"? Verboten??

  • Margaret

    I think it is a travesty to go and change classic literature for the sake of political correctness. 

    It is the same as rewriting history. Literature reflects society as it was at the time the manuscript was written.  Mark Twain was a brilliant author. Millions have loved his books. Let them stay as written is my vote.