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Ishmael Reed on Twain’s “sensitive” censors

By Harriet Staff

When Alan Gribben last week explained to Publishers Weekly that his new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was omitting “racially sensitive” language, it wasn’t that he was revising history, he was simply reflecting the ways that modern audiences relate to racism. In the 21st Century, we implicitly get that the N-word is bad, so there’s no longer any need to make it visible—or at least that’s what the frequent challengers of the books’ place in schools and libraries would have you believe.

Naturally this argument didn’t sit well with the many readers and educators who’ve relied on the text as a standard introduction to the realities of racism for decades. The Wall Street Journal asked Ishmael Reed to weigh in and he sums up the problem in a mere two sentences:

Those who wish to ban the use of ethnic slurs in American literature don’t have the manpower to accomplish such a deed. The fact that Mark Twain has been singled out means those who are crusading against the author haven’t read much of American literature.

As Reed points out, selective editing says less about the insensitivity of the author and more about the times we live in now. And it’s not because we’ve become enlightened enough that we should no longer have to confront the past.

Like [Frederick] Douglass and other 19th Century authors, Twain used the words with which he was surrounded and to insist that he omit words is not only to put a gag on his characters but a gag on the Age…

In a time when blacks were considered by some to be little more than brutes, Twain has blacks communicating with one another through complicated codes while the whites commit such violence against the slaves and each other that the feuding between two families is such that only a few male members remain. Twain uses the same aggressive satire to expose the hypocrisy of the slave owners.

To reduce that aggressive contrast dampens the effects of the satire and what it reveals about our culture, though Twain’s censors might express surprise that anyone still needs to learn that lesson.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, January 5th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.