Any time I read in a news report that "The blogs are on fire today with opinions on..." I usually zone out. This is a defensive response since my wife hates it when I yell at the radio, and this isn't that kind of blog anyway... most of the time.
But this time it was one of my favorite books at the center of the storm.
I grew up in Missouri, immersed in the legendary shadow of Mark Twain. I spent a lot of time pretending to be Tom Sawyer (I found Tom more relatable than Huck) so an incredible amount of my parent's and grandparents' twine and twigs were sacrificed to my adolescent experiments with raft building. One of the reasons I focused on Tom rather than Huck was that I never quite knew what to do with the escaped slave narrative. I knew what to do with "River Pirates", but not what to do with Jim.
I grew up knowing that the black kids were every bit as human as the white kids, so Huck's slowly-dawning revelation about that fact seemed a bit daft to me. It's a mindset that I cannot fathom... but I knew people, all too many people, who had no trouble whatsoever thinking of dark-skinned people as less.
I wasn't going to comment on this because, let's be honest with ourselves, this is not the first time Huckleberry Finn has had its language whitewashed. When was the last time you heard young Huck say "Nigger Jim" on the silver screen? Why? Because we don't say that anymore. And to put those words in a young actor's mouth in our racially-charged culture would be anathema to our sensibilities.
And if you cared to look, there are a dozen "condensed" or "young reader's editions" of the book for sale in which that troubling racial epithet is suspiciously absent. Why we're arguing about it this time is anyone's guess. I suspect it's that the imprint putting it out is called "New South" just puts an unfortunate spin on the story with southern states holding events to celebrate their secession from the union. Timing is everything, I guess.
And while the reasons for the Civil War was more-or-less an argument about state's rights, the "state right" at the center of the fight was undeniably the right to own people because they have a darker skin color than yours.
I'm not a sociologist and I'm not a Twain scholar. I'll leave the socio-political wrangling over this mess to those as have the academic credentials to back up their arguments. But my friends in the American Library Association tell me that Huck Finn is at or near the top of every list of books that have been challenged or banned and has been pretty much since it came out. Maybe we can take some solace in the idea that the reasons for challenging Huck have (we are told) evolved from "This is too accurate about how we are now" to "This is too accurate about how we were."
That is progress of a sort, I suppose...
Unless, we're lying to ourselves.
Unless, as Salon said, this is viewed from the standpoint of America photoshopping the flaws out of its history like a magazine airbrushing the character out of an aging starlet's face.
Wait... Did I just say that our turbulent racial history is akin to "character lines"?
Yes, and I think that's an apt description. Every wrinkle on your face is the track of past moments of joy or anger or grief. Just as every muscle showing in your torso is the record of hard hours at the gym, every blemish or bloat are the remnants of indulgence or negligence or sloth. To wave them away with the stroke of an editor's pen is to lie about who you really are and worst of all, to lie about the past that got you to where you are.
This is less about the excision of a word from a single book (as I've noted, it's not the first time) and indicative of something that's a resurgent trend in our books and classrooms. When textbooks are being rewritten to make our founding fathers seem more pious than they were, or our forefathers seem more enlightened than they were, it's a lie. And the most troubling part of that lie isn't the lie itself, but how it hides the progress we've made (or the ways we've regressed) since the incident we are sanitizing to fit a current ideological desire.
History is what it is. It's what happened, not what we wish had happened. It's about what our forerunners believed and taught and thought and how it impacted the way that they acted. It's how we measure our progress from one state to another, from one mindset to the next, from the barbaric to the civilized and all too often, back again. It is how we learn not to repeat mistakes past and what we point to when we have. And every time we put a coat of paint over the past in the interest of keeping people comfortable, something valuable is lost... the wisdom that comes with the lines on our collective face. Wisdom that we will soon forget if we bury the lines under layers of airbrushing.
This is what we are doing with Huck Finn. Lying to ourselves, to our children especially, about how we got from a place where we required a journey through cold, dark waters to arrive at the conclusion that that people with darker skin tones are just as human as we are to a point where we're uncomfortable admitting that we ever thought that they weren't.
And worst of all, it reminds us that we're not as far down that road as we would like to think.