Should Huck Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird Be Censored?

January 7, 2011  |  

Is rewriting and censoring someone’s creation for textual purity a bad idea?  Should controversial books such as the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (“Huck Finn”) and To Kill a Mockingbird (“TKM”) be updated for modern times?  These are two questions that have recently created a substantial outcry relative to the classic novels by Mark Twain and Harper Lee.

Without equivocation, Huck Finn and TKM are two of the greatest works in American literature, as objectively evidenced by their widespread readership in our nation’s classrooms and around the globe.   These two texts are also extremely polemical in nature because of their inherent racial stereotypes and relatively heavy usage of racial slurs and have been consequently banned in various places.  In an effort to overcome the controversial aspect of Huck Finn, NewSouth Books plans to release a version in February that will replace the “n” word with “slave” and replace the slur “injun” when referencing Native Americans.

And, there have been discussions of making similar changes in TKM.  Some commentators have voiced strong opinions that this type of censorship should not be implemented, because it is predicated on erasing racism as if it never happened.  Other critics and readers believe that the changes to Huck Finn and the proposed modifications to TKM are necessary and will result in more people being able to truly enjoy these narratives.  Are both viewpoints valid?  Absolutely.

Since the election of President Obama, there are certain individuals who believe that we now live in a post-racial and colorblind America, where racism and bigotry have come to an end and divisive and artificial categorizations (i.e., races) cease to remain.  In congruence with this train of thought, some people believe that talking about the days when the “n” word was “acceptable” is no longer needed.

To be sure, it would be great if discourse about the struggles and the colorful vernacular that was used to describe the fictional slave Jim and Tom Robinson in Huck Finn and TKM, respectively, was somehow no longer relevant.  Although these thoughts are lofty and utopian in nature, one has to be honest that we, as a whole, do not live in a post-racial America where the thought of race is nonexistent and people are seen and judged by their character in lieu of skin pigmentation.

We continue to live in a society where racial injustices and xenophobia are fairly ubiquitous though more subtle in nature.  Thus, efforts to censor the historical backdrops of these texts where African-Americans and Native Americans were treated in a sub-human fashion and to erase Twain and Lee’s courageous critiques of racism, segregation and lynchings can certainly be seen as a euphemistic “whitewashing” of a necessary history that must be consistently told to prevent repeating.

Relative to critics and readers who believe that the changes to only one version of Huck Finn and the proposed modifications to one printing of TKM are necessary, their assessment is also quite plausible to a certain degree.  Although Twain and Lee were both bold in their respective times for penning works that aimed to decry barbaric acts and to promote humane sensibility, one has to question the overabundance of racial epithets in their novels to achieve these goals.  It is relatively safe to state the fact that the “n” word appearing 217 times in Huck Finn and 48 times in TKM is overwhelming.  This certainly makes the teaching of such novels fairly difficult for certain teachers, and it also creates an atmosphere where certain students can be very uneasy and uncomfortable.

Thus, to replace the “n” word with “slave” and replace the slur “injun” when referencing Native Americans in Huck Finn and to make similar changes in TKM can certainly resonate well among children of all ethnicities without diluting the overall themes of love, compassion and courage.

On the whole, despite the controversy, the intended result of having more people, including young readers, being able to enjoy narratives such as Huck Finn and TKM should be worth the changes.

Anthony Jerrod is a bestselling author, speaker, and public policy expert.

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