Thursday, January 6, 2011

Huck Finn without the N-word?

Over the last few days I have been following the announcement of the NewSouth Books release of Alan Gribben’s revised version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This revised version has replaced the contentious word ‘nigger’ with ‘slave’ and other “more suitable” alternatives throughout the story. Many online announcements regarding this release have been followed by a barrage of angry comments from readers (for one example see ). Many are upset that Mark Twain’s original intentions have been ignored, others feel that Gribben has overlooked the significance of Twain’s intentioned use of the term, while still others question the move as a form of paternalistic censorship. While NewSouth Books has been quite open, indeed celebratory, about their new version of the Twain classic (with 7500 copies ready for teachers to purchase!), Diane Ravitch documented much more widespread, though closeted, efforts by school book and test publishers to censor hurtful or biased words from educational materials via “bias panels” in her 2003 book, The Language Police. There, Ravitch sought to reveal such censorship and call for its end. Many of the points she raised are echoed in the outraged commentaries following the press release this week. These have reminded me of my response to Ravitch’s work and to the larger issue of school material censorship in my 2007 Teachers College Record article, “Offensive Speech in Educational Materials: Changing Words Without Censorship.” Below I have excerpted some parts of that article which I believe remain particularly relevant to new n-wordless Huck Finn and which I hope others will find helpful as we engage in public response to this revised classic.

This first excerpt picks up on undertheorized aspects of Ravtich’s work which are also missing from most conversations of Gribben’s new book that I have read so far: a sophisticated understanding of speech acts, the power of language to injure, and important avenues for reworking language. I garner these ideas mostly from the work of J.L. Austin’s work in the 1960s and Judith Butler’s more recent writings.

Butler (1997) noted, “If we understand the force of the name to be an effect of its historicity, then that force is not the mere causal effect of an inflicted blow, but works in part through an encoded memory or a trauma, one that lives in language and is carried in language” (p. 36). Butler can be used to supplement Ravitch’s notions of power and causation to show that the force of language comes from using words that cite harmful histories of the past. These histories have maintain status hierarchies, even when composed of words that are seemingly transparent representations of reality. The majority of people are sensitive to the most explicit words that the bias panels target, like nigger, because they carry a recognizable history of trauma...Butler (1997), however, explores the relationship between linguistic and bodily injury. She inquires into the existence of many metaphors expressing linguistic injury in terms of bodily pain; for example, some African Americans reported that being called “nigger” is like being slapped in the face. Describing the combined linguistic and corporeal experience of offensive speech, Butler says, “To be injured by speech is to suffer a loss of context, that is, not to know where you are. Indeed, it may be that what is unanticipated about the injurious speech act is what constitutes its injury, the sense of putting its addressee out of control” (Butler, p. 4). What may be problematic in educational material containing offensive speech, then, is that it makes children feel even more out of control and disoriented in the process of education, which is already largely imposed on them and is mostly beyond their control. Such material can invoke a mental and even physical sense of injury.

Butler (1997) warns, “Keeping such terms unsaid and unsayable can also work to lock them in place, preserving their power to injure, and arresting the possibility of a reworking that might shift their context and purpose” (p. 38). Bias panels that intend to end the circulation of these words in educational materials may also fix the meanings of these words and their ability to wound, suggesting that the words themselves, rather than their histories, intended meanings, use, or context, have the potential to harm. In this way, censorship preserves offensive language and treats it ahistorically.

Addressing harmful speech is best done through resignification rather than censorship. Indeed, she notes, “That such language carries trauma is not a reason to forbid its use. There is no purifying language of its traumatic residue, and no way to work through trauma except through the arduous effort it takes to direct the course of its repetition” (p. 38). Butler suggests that the link between word and wound may be disrupted. Public recontextualization of words can shift their meanings and their capacity to produce certain effects. The dependence of bias words on performance, relying on repetition and systems of oppression, can be revealed when the repetition takes an unexpected turn. Biased words can be reclaimed slowly over time by the groups they negatively portray or by others who contest them, as has happened with the word queer. Instead of removing words, then, textbooks writers should try to jeopardize the stability of problematic words in order to counter their injurious possibilities and point toward new ways of claiming them. The appropriate concern of publishers, then, is responsibility for the way that controversial speech is repeated and recirculated within their pages and within the classroom discussions and activities they provoke. Publishers that assume students are innocent victims in need of protection overlook the potential for an educative, agency-building situation in which students learn that they are capable of confronting and changing the language that names them. In a misguided attempt to protect them, the act of censorship risks their well being and intellectual development even more. Ravitch’s view of language prevents her from analyzing the ways in which special interest groups envision subordinated individuals. Namely, they are dubbed victims who have lost their autonomy and authority. Victimhood is a paralyzing state that suggests that paternalistic measures of protection (the rationale for censorship, in this case) are warranted. Butler’s discursive account dispels the illusion of the subject’s sovereign autonomy. Because one cannot have complete control over the language one uses or is constituted by, the category of victim is largely rendered nonsensical. Inquiring into the loss of power that individuals do experience in such situations, Butler points toward political agency as an affirmative remedy that taps into the power dispersed in language. Reworking the context, meaning, and effect of words can develop political agency within students who encounter offensive speech in educational materials...
Working within the limits that constitute oneself, what one says, and what one does, one is able to jeopardize the stability of offensive words in order to counter their injurious possibilities. Censorship denies this possibility. It prevents students from having the opportunity to engage with contested words and to rework them. It renders students powerless and deprives them of motivation to effect change and alleviate oppression. Furthermore, it literalizes speech, denying metaphor and ambiguity (Abel, 1998).

Finally, I end with another excerpt where I explicitly discuss Huck Finn and how one important author reworked, and continues to rework in nearly all of her novels, an initial trauma:

In a 2003 interview in the New Yorker, Toni Morrison recounted her experience of reading the controversial, Ravitch-supported Huckleberry Finn (Als, 2003). Whereas the bias panels Ravitch describes and other advocates of hate speech censorship that Butler depicts would promote withholding such a book from students in order to prevent the wounds it inflicts, Morrison’s example points in a different direction. She notes that when she first read the book unassisted, she was overwhelmed with “fear and alarm.” These are understandable responses of a Black girl encountering racist names, acts, and histories. Later in junior high, she reread the book under the guidance of a teacher. Upon this reading, she was struck by a strange mix of pleasurable responses to the literary tale, rage at the injustices she was discovering, and a “profoundly distasteful complicity.” Her complicity most likely arose from feeling ushered into an unjust history that she did not want to support but that was composing her very being. She may have felt as though she had to accept it to deal with daily life. Although she does not say more about her classroom exchange, we can see how this mix of responses in a classroom willing to engage and confront the meaning of racialized terms and the ritualized acts that they entail could provoke a successful variation on the repetition of a seemingly harmful story. Indeed, Morrison’s writing many years later does just that.


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David Waddington said...

Boing Boing just ran a great cartoon: "Huck Finn Corrected for Modern Sensibilities."