Battling over Twain: Political Correctness and the ‘N’ Word

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: 10.01.2011

Part of the treasure trove of language is its facility to insult. It's power lies precisely in its ability to stir, provoke and enrage. Sometimes, a word may be placed in context for a specific reason - to remind one of suffering, to jolt the reader into acknowledging an age so vicious it requires a certain brutal rendering. Culling such language, sanitizing it, inflicts an injustice.

When the cult of political correctness began to take root, the priests of language got busy with their restrictive sermons and their vengeful attacks on expression. A hurt feeling meant a banished word. Various portrayals and depictions had to be banished from the classroom, and any room, for that matter. The brooms were applied by state educators. The libraries were emptied. Books disappeared. Texts vanished.

The attempt to readjust the language of Mark Twain's classics from the 19th century in excising the 'N' word provides the classic illustration of where this sentiment takes us. The latest edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have boasts notable trimmings. 'Nigger' has been dropped in favor of 'slave', which hardly amounts to the same thing. Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who has doctored the novels of the offending word (used in Huck Finn 219 times and four in Tom Sawyer), insists that this is a good thing.

Such a removal of words does inflict a theft upon language and context. By removing the offending suspects, black cultural critic Michaela Davis argues that, 'It robs us of the sense that we have evolved, that we've gone from being the N-word to Mr. President'. Ishmael Reed, writing in The Wall Street Journal, has made the point even more strongly, insisting that such omissions 'gag' not merely the characters but an age. The masking tape has been applied, and history has been hidden. The queasy, the awkward and the reluctant have won in silencing Jim, whose integrity in the novel as a figure in the face of brutal slaver owners is above question.

Even more dangerously, such textual snipping has a habit of being contagious. The word police know no bounds. That Twain has proved to be a target here is worrying. For Reed, hip hop 'as we know it would end.' Songs would be readjusted. And what of black writers such as Frederick Douglass, who make frequent references to the word 'nigger'?

Gribben wishes to impress another aspect of the debate upon us. Certain books might never be read in various colleges and schools. 'Offensive' language is treated as the bar for such matter to make its way into school syllabi, an even more noxious form of non-education if there ever was one. Indeed, Twain would have been amused himself, seeing that he regarded education as something distinct and apart from the formal schooling process. An argument might well be made that Gribben's efforts do, at the very least, allow the texts to find their appropriate place in an American classroom. That said, the danger of such textual pruning remains.

The project by Gribben might be a noble one, but such nobility is hell-bound. Language has to be fearless in its expression. The readers who come afterwards and bother to care for what the author says must have little fear in what they find. To read certain works is to be offended and wounded. But out of out of those wounds comes wisdom, perspective and understanding.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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