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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  • Barbara Ehrentreu

    I don't believe in censorship of any kind and neither did Mark Twain. He would have been the first one to stop the publishing of this new book. I believe that authors like Twain need to be taught in a historical frame. Sure there might be some who are offended by the word, but frankly, if you present it in a historical context you can explain it for the people who feel this way. The other night on The Daily Show, Larry Wilmore, an African American man said that the word "slave" is actually worse than the n word. The reason is that it defines Jim as what he is and it is not true. Jim was not a slave anymore. He was a freeman. Twain put that word into his book because it was in the regular language of the day. Actually, it was the correct form and not the southern form with n-gra. Changing Mark Twain's amazing classic is almost a crime. Leave the original words in the book. Literature doesn't need to be changed, especially such a classic.

  • Carolyn Barbre

    oops. should read common parlance

  • Carolyn Barbre

    People have forgotten or don't know that "nigger" was common palance in Mark Twain's day, rather than perjorative.

    Didn't y'all ever read Uncle Remus or see Song of the South. According to Wikipedia, "Many of these stories that he recorded have direct equivalents in the African oral tradition, and we owe it to Joel Chandler Harris that he remembered them and wrote them down, thereby preserving them in their African-American form." The author was a strong influence on Twain. 


  • ".... as the empire crumbles."


  • J. A. Carlton

    This ridiculous affront is the equivalent of a literary mole removal. It's yet another attempt to sanitize American history. What a horror!

  • Linda Loveland Reid

    If we change enough history, there won't be history, only personal opinions.

  • RYCJ Revising

    I would prefer to read the original book, just the way the author wrote it and meant it. If I get to a part that makes me shiver and cringe, then I'd shiver and cringe and keep reading, or close my eyes and the book.

    And in as far as children are concerned, either assign the book as is, or not at all because once it's out there, it's out there.

    On a personal note, when my children were at this impressionable age schools could do what they wanted with those reading materials, because I made myself a credible parent... whether 'my opinions' were right or wrong I never blatantly 'removed' information leaving them vulnerable to hear the truth someplace else. Misinformation can't be a good thing, especially later in life when you're standing before a room full of colleagues who have the 'authentic' version, but here you are at this late stage still presenting the fluffed up version... and oh, don't even know it.

  • Dawn Brazil

    It should not be taken out. We learn from errors in the past. Plus, its a classic, it shouldn't be touched. Its wrong on sooo many different levels.

  • Rebekah Webb

    This type of censorship isn't really about not being offensive. It's about the need to deny anything terrible that has ever gone on and deny that anything terrible could ever happen. It's shouting at the top of your lung "I'm not a bad person!" and plugging your ears to the fact that anyone could ever be. It's pushing dirt under the rug so you don't have to deal with it, or accept the fact that some of the dirt came from your own shoes.


    It's done under the guise of stopping hate, but it's just that, a guise. Anyone who really wanted to create a better world would deal with the dark aspects of life head on, not pretend they don't exist. They accept their part in the problem and work on real change. The people who want to cover up the past (and present) aren't doing that. They spend more time crafting the appearance of being good people than actually working to better themselves.

  • Sally Diane Franz

    When you revise history, you don't  learn from your mistakes. Leave what was there there. Leave words, leave monuments, and the Ten Commandments. Let us not erase, but use these points for dialogue.

  • Natasha Papousek

    Iadvise doing what my English teacher at Pearl High in Nashville did.  When she was confronted with the blacklisting of "Huckleberry Finn", she simply chose an obscure novel by Mark Twain that was not mentioned on the DO NOT TEACH list: "Puddin'head Wilson".  We had all the cultural context, rich flavor of life in South at that time and all the inflammatory words,  and no-one else had even heard of the book.  Miss Alma Sneed; brilliant!  Censorship does not work; and word switching is revisionism.

  • Marla West

    Leave it the way it is, Twain is an American master and he is not in need of 21st century editing.

  • Sandra Tarling

    We can extend this reasoning for revising someone's written work to terms referring to other minorities and women. It could generate a whole new niche in the writing world.  For women alone, we'd need to expunge terms such as 'whore,' 'bitch,' 'harlot,' etc. as additional demeaning words and their connotations continue to enter our everyday language. The revising would be neverending . . .  language police anyone?

  • C. Rochelle Weidner

    There were times in history that women were considered theproperty of a man. He made all the decisions in the household, including how many children she would bear, and how she would conduct his house. We have to be careful to not lose any of the rights that have been gained during the past hundred years, and that includes the right to reflect history with an accurate measure. Whitewashing a term doesn’t change how things were. Tampering with the  issues that created change demeans that change, and makes it less relevant.

  • Elisabeth Hanscombe

    To me it's political correctness gone crazy.  The weird wish to sanitise that which is not 'squeaky clean' so as not to offend

    imaginary hordes of people, when I suspect it is more about preserving an image of life that denies the essential nature of that life.  It's probably related to the tendency to judge the past by present standards.  If we can accept that life- and language - was different then we might not feel so strong a need to re-write it.   history.

  • Alex Iwashyna

    I believe that the real issue is classrooms banning it in the first place. Censorship of literature is a disgrace to our libraries and education system.

  • Lori May

    I think it's a disgrace, personally. You can remove the historically accurate slang, whether offensive or otherwise, but unless you completely rewrite the novels themselves you aren't erasing the hatred, prejudices, etc. What's next--Gone with the Wind without a civil war? Yep, let's just erase that whole unfortunate, still-offensive conflict from the record, too.

  • Holly Sullivan McClure

    The old saw about those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it came to mind for me. Historical evil doesn't go away because we ignore it, or try to sugar coat the unacceptable elements. It seems that a novel that uses this word in the context of the time would allow discussion among kids about how demeaning it was then and now, and create a greater understanding about how it feels to be called a name with all that history behind it. I don't want the waspy little kids in my family to be comfortable with the concept of slavery either, so substituting that is just as bad. My son was shocked when I took him to an alley in New Orleans to show him the back door of a restaurant where the words, 'colored entrance,' could be seen through the paint, but it made him understand the meaning of segregation. We've come a long way, but maybe we need to remember where we came from to make sure we never go back there.

  • Breena Clarke

    I think perhaps schools/teachers should reconsider at what grade level the book is taught. Save it until an open discussion of the language and the history of the novel can be discussed -- this rather than change the book. The fact that the protagonist is a boy does not mean it is a book for youngsters to read. In fact, the book considers a lot of serious adult problems in addition to the depiction of slavery and racial hatred. Some of the other bits could be disturbing as well for youngsters  - loss of parent, alcoholic father, poor academic performance, homelessness and hunger. "Huckleberry Finn" is not necessarily a book for children to read. Have them read Frederick Douglas' autobiography first. Teach 'em history and leave the book alone.

  • Roseanne Reed Motti
    Altering "Huckleberry Finn" is wrong. And stupid. For all the reasons Cynthia, Marcia, Sarah-Jane, and others list. But that's just me; a donkey, a chowder-head, a lace-curtain but more often shanty, Irish American doll, chippy, broad, lady, chick, b*tch, whore, slut . . . you get the idea.
  • Sharon D. Dillon

    We must leave the words in and keep Huck Finn in the schools. To do otherwise is an attempt to change U.S. history. History should not be cleansed of validity. Otherwise how will we learn why certain events happened and what needed to be done to correct them. (Of course, history is written by the victor, but that's a topic for another day.) Teachers and parents need to use Huck Finn to explain the context and why we no longer use that word. That was what happened way back when I was a student.

  • Ellen Horan

    Beware of large adventures inrailroads, niggers, wild lands, new banks, old banks, manufacturing enterprises, steamships, regular and fancy stocks, which promise no redeeming dividends this side of 1860. When the winds blow, and the rains fall, and thefloods descend, all these things may be swept away as within the brief space ofa single night. The New York Herald, February 4, 1857 

    This is the opening quote of my book 31 Bond Street. Based on a true story of a murder, the racial tensions in NYC were apparent in the newspaper articles I read and included verbatim. I was asked to read that quote on the radio but say 'N-word.' My daughter told me that my book would be banned at her school. The history of that period was terrifying for many,  and  it does not enlighten or educate to censure out the past. 

  • Peggy Bird

    This new edition of "Huck Finn" raises issues we need to discuss. If it makes people talk about how we teach the parts of our history we are not proud of and the power of an ugly word, it's not a total loss. As for me, I vote for the way Twain meant me to read it.  

  • Cynthia Haven

    The international conversation about Huck Finn and the n-word started on Dec. 31 at my blog, The Book Haven.  Mark Bauerlein at The Chronicle of Higher Education did an excellent summary of the discussion -- it's here. His last two paragraphs are dynamite ("No teacher should approach the language in a book written more than 100 years ago as in a condition of defensible or indefensible. Assigning a work is not the same thing as endorsing it. It is to hold the work up to analysis. Furthermore, one of the lessons of the assignment should be to recognize that one can analyze something that one deplores.")

    My first post, with Sam Gwynn's comments on teaching Huck Finn in Texas, is here.

    I've been writing about it for two weeks now -- you're welcome to follow the discussion (as well as creating one here).

  • Marcia Alesan Dawkins

    the most important reason to stay true to Twain’s words is this. We’ve been reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” for over a century and it hasn’t stopped us from passing civil rights legislation, ending segregation in public schools, passing the Voting Rights Act, engaging in interracial relationships, appointing nonwhite members to the Supreme Court or electing nonwhite political officials, including our current president. So why, in 2011, do we suddenly need to change Twain’s books?...


    For more please see my full post:  http://marciadawkins.com/blog