“Books don’t start trouble. Books help stop it!”
~ Dr. Michaela Quinn
With the recent uproar over a new edition’s removal of the word “nigger” from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I’d like to share my own thoughts on the matter. As a writer, I have a strong opinion on censorship and banned books, to a point where I sometimes feel like I strive to join the Greats (L’Engle, Bradbury, Twain, etc.) and achieve a position on the Banned Book List.
Banned books make a mark on history, because they make a difference to society. Successful tales that express harsh truths and open people’s minds to concepts beyond certain comfort levels. The very reasons they’re considered for censorship are the foundations for why they must be read and studied.
Latest Censorship Victim
Literary censorship has been part of American society for decades. What’s caused the debate this time is a “simple” switch of the words ‘nigger’ and ‘Injun’ to ‘slave’ and ‘Indian.’ The hope is to remove Twain’s classic from the banned shelf. I’m game for more access to a treasured story, but at what cost?
The New York Times article opens: “What’s the harm? Does one word alter the whole story?” The answer is a big, fat YES! It does! People deny this. They believe the switch is a good thing, because, politically, it cancels out any negative connotations the words carry.
Think about it: how does “slave” or “Indian” hurt less when used in the derogatory sense? I mean, I could make “spaghetti snotface” sound derogatory in the right context. And that’s the trick right there—context, perspectives, and interpretations shape everything.
In every creative writing class I’ve ever taken, one lesson remains constant: word choice is crucial, and therefore must be considered wisely. A writer’s diction drives the impact her piece has on readers, especially in light of varying perspectives.
Katie ran down the street, away from her pursuer, Chuck.
The language used in the example above leaves the sentence open to interpretation. Readers will conjure their own ideas on exactly how Katie runs. These ideas will be as varied as the people reading. But if I wish to convey a specific type of running, I’ll choose words that fit.
Katie rushed down the street, away from her pursuer, Chuck.
In this second example, the image that comes to mind might be more negative. Panic. Fear. Katie doesn’t want Chuck chasing her, so she’s hurrying away. Readers can then imagine a frown on her face. Wide eyes, perhaps with some tears.
Katie skipped down the street, away from her pursuer, Chuck.
With Katie now skipping, readers are more inclined to picture a smile on her face. She might even be laughing because the guy she likes is chasing her as part of a game.
Language Means Everything
Mark Twain himself said that “the difference between the right and wrong word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” This is a beautiful image. Lightning is a bright, obnoxious, and often scary thing for people. But a lightning bug? The small insect poses little threat.
The point is, Twain knew what he was doing. He chose words to express certain ideas. ‘Nigger’ and ‘Injun’ were part of the vernacular in Huck Finn’s time. Huck didn’t see any offense in them; he spoke how he was taught. Changing that alters the story because it removes the tone Twain meant for his story to have, as well as the historical accuracy of the piece.
A tweet from now-defunct Twitter user @JimmyMakDaddy read:
“By taking the racism out of Huckleberry Finn, that means it never happened! Soon, we’ll fix history so that whites never F’d up.”
Indeed, censoring literature invalidates the truest records we have of history. Through fiction, truth prevails. Denying that to literature is just another way to control what people know about human history.
Literature As History
Racism happened. It sucks, it’s wretched, and it forever dominates how people interact with one another. Unless we educate ourselves. Use literature as a device from which to teach and learn about societies, cultures, and history.
Some folks feel we must “protect” ourselves and our children from certain values or beliefs, as if sheltering the young means the world’s negativity doesn’t exist. For that reason, censorship is seen as righteous.
Lessons From Pop Culture
Consider the wise words of one of my favourite characters from the 90s, Dr. Quinn. There’s one episode that always stands out above the rest. Colorado Springs discovered “evil horrors” within the pages of their new library’s books. Books about selling one’s soul to the devil (Faust) or an unwed mother (The Scarlet Letter) were considered outrageous, especially given the time period.
Dr. Mike, though, comes up with the wittiest response to her town’s closed-minded desires to censor literary exposure. She approaches the town church with a book in hand that “tells of a father who sacrificed his own daughter. A book that tells of a man who was married to more than one woman at a time. This book even has a passage in it describing how God accepted a bet from the devil.”
The townspeople cringe and gasp while the Reverend praises Dr. Mike for her new insight and agreement that such a book, without a doubt, must be banned. She then hands over that book to the Reverend. He face sours. The townsfolk ask what book could host such an array of evil. Dr. Mike turns to them and states: “The Holy Bible.”