Should Literature be Changed to be Politcally Correct?

Yesterday I wrote a post on Political Correctness (Walking on Eggshells) going to far. There was a realitively healthy and high-spirited debate between myself and another blogger. Doobster brought up a point in regards to word usage and one example was: “. . . there are just certain things that people don’t need to say, certain words that people find offensive that are just unnecessary, such as “the N-word.” For some reason in the middle of night, I woke up and thought about the move to take “nigger” out of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

When I heard about this several years ago I was outraged. How dare someone even suggest removing it and replacing it with another word.

Just a bit of background about this move. Alan Gribben a professor of English at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama said that by changing the word “Nigger” to “slave” and “Injun Joe” to “Indian Joe” would make it more palatable for younger readers and help teacher’s teach. Gribben started replacing nigger with slave in order to be more politically correct and in 2011 New South Books published a combined copy of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn replacing nigger with slave, injun Joe with Indian Joe.

Twain uses the word “Nigger” 219 time and perhaps it is overkill, but the bottom line is it’s an integral part of the story. And furthermore that is the way they spoke back then. Slaves were called Niggers and Indians were called Injuns. You can’t change history to make it more palatable.

I am a litery purist and I read an excerpt of the New South Books version and hated it. It lost something. Granted it wasn’t as jarring, but I think that was Twain’s purpose. To jar you out of comfort zone and get you to think, ‘is this right? To make you ask yourself and your peers and anyone else the tough questions.

  • Why does Huck use this type of language?
  • Why does Twain choose to use a child to make his point?
  • What is Twain’s point?
  • What emotion(s) does it illicit within the context of the story?
  • How does the word affect the story?
  • Does the word enhance the story or detract from it?
  • When/How did the word come into our lexicon?
  • What is the word’s etymology?
  • How has the word changed over time?
  • Why is it offensive to you? or Why isn’t it offensive to you?

FYI: I was an English Literature major and taught 9th grade English for a few years. These are some of the types of questions I would have posed to my students.

Instead of changing the language in a literay classic to be more politically correct, why not jump start a converstation. Teachers and Professors are supposed to be able to ask the tough questions and drive meaninful discussions, but you can’t do that if you’re afraid of the P.C. police.

We have so many opportunities to open up a discussion on things that are controversial and make us uncomfortable and we piss them away by sweeping them under the rug. Everything can’t be palatable and the only real way to make things better is talk about them. In other words, in order to move on from the hurt you have to air your dirty laundry. If you keep ignoring it pretty soon it’ll blow up in your face. And then what?

The New York Times has a really good article about this, if you’d like to read more about it.
Light Out, Huck, They Still Want to Sivilize You

4 thoughts on “Should Literature be Changed to be Politcally Correct?

  1. I agree with you and with the comments Trent added as well. Literature like this was written in a different time and it is history. Rewriting it does a disservice to everyone. Better that teachers teach the students this and open their minds to critical thinking and discussion of why it was that way a hundred years ago for instance and how we all can change how we are now rather than just hide what came before, shoving it under the rug, so to speak, This PC stuff is going way overboard, in my humble opinion.

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    • As educators (teachers and parents), we should be able and allowed to ask the tough questions and not be afraid of repercussions. Today’s youth are not being taught real critical thinking skills, which is disheartning. Nor do they understand why things are offensive.

      We start censoring them to early. I read somewhere where they want to take the word dinosaur off some standardized test because they feel it’s offensive to older people. Really? Who’s leading these charges and why are they allowed to lead them. I know a lot of elderly people that refer to themselves and other elderly people as such (usually joking).

      Anyway going to hop off my soapbox now..

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  2. Huckleberry Finn would not be the same book. The whole idea behind the book is that Huck had every type of racist thought yet still somehow accepted Jim as a father figure. As far as Jim goes, even seen through Huck’s eyes he proves himself so far removed from the racist stereotype and by far the best (in every sense of the word) character in the book. We need the word in order to show how Jim transcends it.

    As far as PC is concerned, it does sometimes go too far, yet I think everyone does need to be aware of others and their feelings. We shouldn’t be “accidentally” hateful. Changing the past,or great literature, doesn’t serve anyone, yet we are all responsible to ensure the future is better than the present and taking in mind the feelings of others is part of it.

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    • Trent, your statement is very true about how Jim transcends the stereotype. He proves that because someone referrs to you in a negative manner it doesn’t define who you are. And Huck realizes that Jim is so much more than that, so in a sense Huck needs to use the word in order to realize it.

      I definitely believe that we shouldn’t say anything that is meant to be purposefully hurtful or malicious. Since we can’t change the past, we need to take a long hard look at it, embrace it no matter how much it hurts and revolts us, learn from it, and figure out how to make our future better. Literature like this helps us to look within and discover who we are.

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