Sanitising our past

By 23:15

Set in the 1880’s, a superb book written in the vernacular from along the Mississippi River features Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and Nigger Jim. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been received for over 120 years with a lot of controversy and debate. Perhaps the negativity surrounding the book is due to fear, empathy, hate or simply the inability to understand a great piece of literature as a whole.


In the 1880’s, blacks were treated as sub human by whites. As a result, segregation, racial prejudice and lynching ensued. Jim is depicted as a good person looking for freedom from slavery. Huckleberry Finn is a young boy who struggles his conscience of helping his newly found friend, Jim, to escape by essentially stealing someone else’s property. The book is filled with lots of adventure, the sad tales of Jim’s life as a slave and the changing mindset of Huck Finn’s understanding of slaves and black people.
Jim’s character was created to humanise slaves so that the reader understands what they go through and what they want from life. Indeed, the book is filled with stereotypes and rightly so as the reader escapes into the 1880’s. Words that are considered derogatory in the current day as well as in the setting of the book are littered throughout. And why not? The n-word was commonly used back then. It was intended to be a derogatory term and its connotation has remained until today.
The book has been deemed racist and offensive. It’s been banned from libraries and schools over the years for many reasons: for the unique vernacular style of writing, for depicting Jim as a nice black man, for the story being outdated and for the use of offensive language.
This year a new version will be released where the n-word is replaced by “slave”. This means that the book can be taught at school. Brilliant, isn’t it? Remove racial slurs and still teach kids about American history. All the while, popular rap artists like Drake, Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Snoop Dogg use the n-word in their songs. This makes the word more accessible to white children and it offends black people when white kids use it. Popular culture doesn’t teach us why the word is offensive. And now, Mark Twain’s works won’t teach this to us either. So we can keep children from reading the n-word in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but how do we keep out the n-word from the music that young people listen to?
People of varying cultures feel uneasy when teaching the book and reading from it. Why? Because of racial slurs? Really? You’re going to be offended because Jim is referred to as a nigger and not be offended by the fact that he could have been sold for $40? Does the use of the word offend you? Then how do you think Jim felt when he was not only humiliated but also owned? That’s right – we’re teaching children to feel hurt when they hear a word that they don’t even know the meaning of; instead of teaching them how not to treat different people and that “all human beings are born free and equal” – Article 1 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A round of applause to the decision makers of the American education system!
The book in no way promotes racism but rather uses entertainment to inform people of what was happening. Maybe at the time, Twain wanted us to see life through different eyes. After all, it’s very easy to hate a race when they don’t seem human to you and you’ve been brainwashed into believing the propagated lies.
Well, no amount of logical complaining is going to prevent the sanitisation of the book. It’s done. And what’s next: Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mocking Bird, The Colour Purple? Books that don’t promote hate but rather capture scenes from history. Let us ban these books from school curriculums, shall we? There goes artistic freedom. And there goes the right to teach children the history and the human evolution of the mind, thoughts and ideals.  
I’m curious about what it is that we’re really afraid of. Are we really scared to expose our children to offensive language or are we really that ashamed of our history that we don’t want them to know where they came from? Let us remember the mistakes of the past lest we forget what we learnt from them.

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