“All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” says Huck Finn

There’s a lot of commotion about the n-word in recent days. All because a book publisher decides to do a make-over of Huck Finn and remove “racist” words.

When I was a kid, I read Huck Finn, and loved the story. I don’t think that makes me a racist, considering some of my best childhood friends were Negro (oh, somewhere along the way it became impolite to use that n-word). Anyway, way back then I didn’t even think that the n-word meant something “bad” about somebody. Remember those little black licorice candies shaped like babies? We lovingly called them n-babies.

I’m convinced the word police will be searching my personal library for n-words and other no-words they don’t like. Actually, I found an n-word just recently in a nice book about stargazers, The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (1959, repub 1989) by Jewish author Arthur Koestler (yes, the author of The Thirteenth Tribe). Sleepwalkers is a great little book which describes the “history of cosmology from the Babylonians to Newton.”

Here’s what I wanted to say: on page 358 of Sleepwalkers, I find this phrase: Galileo “appears as the nigger in the woodpile…” Imagine that from the famous author of Darkness At Noon. Anyway, Wikipedia put my mind at ease, saying it’s an English figure of speech and was used in ads by The Rotarian.

So who is allowed to use the n-word nowadays? You can find the answer in the book The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why by Jabari Asim. One reviewer says

But Asim also proves there is a place for the word in the mouths and on the pens of those who truly understand its twisted history — from Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle to Mos Def.

Canadian labor lawyer Yosie Saint-Cyr points out that when Huck Finn was written, referring to black people as niggers was acceptable:

The reality is, at the time the books were published, a great majority of white people thought that using the word “nigger” to refer to a black person was acceptable. Using that word in books in that context is extremely relevant, and a sign of the times.

The book publisher wants to exchange “nigger” for “slave” among other changes. But as many people have pointed out, this would take away the meaning in the proper context of history. Also, what about the white slaves in America? And white slaves in other places? For example, “the wealth of Barbados was founded on the backs of White slave labor there can be no doubt.

Which brings me to a quote from Kepler’s Witch written by former Jesuit priest, James A. Connor:

But in truth, real history is always much more complicated than myth…” (p. 4)

Good point, and one to consider when dealing with all No-words.


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