"So, class, this was written a long time ago, and there are people in it using a word we don't like to hear. Open up to page ___ and see what word it is.
"Now, when you start this book, you might think it's just about a white kid and a black guy and some trip they took. But we're going to see that this book is what the country you live in is all about.
"But back to that word. When Mark Twain had people using that word, he was trying to show readers how wrong that was. Twain isn't calling somebody the word; he's showing people using it. And we're still going to read the book, because we can't pretend that bad things didn't happen in the past, and we know you wouldn't want us to. That word is part of this country's past — and present, too, as you all know from music." (The class chuckles.) "But in the past, it was used even more, and by white people.
"That doesn't mean we're going to use it, though. Just as we don't want anyone here calling anybody that, we're not going to say it in class while we talk about this book. Whenever you want to say something about a line in the book with that word, substitute 'n-word' or something — you can choose. Don't get silly about it, and don't let it sound too much like the real word. You know what I mean.
"OK? Next class, we'll start talking about a really good book."
I don't call that little speech rocket science. Yet NewSouth Books would seem to be creating a baby-food version of Huckleberry Finn, with the n-word replaced by "slave" because of feedback from teachers who claim the book has become "unteachable."
I see. Eighth-graders are too unformed to understand the difference between someone calling someone else the n-word and an author using the word in an ancient book to reveal characters as ignorant. Interesting, given that the same eighth-graders hear the same word used by rappers daily and understand the difference between that usage — as a term of endearment — and the epithet one.
It's fascinating, this openness of wise, scholarly sorts to tampering with a classic. Now and then I have proposed that Shakespearean language, when spoken, is often nearly impossible to understand by someone who hasn't read it beforehand, and that there should be editions that substitute modern words for ones that now require footnoting. The response each time is predictable: Shakespeare fans tear me to ribbons in public venues (while a bunch of people quietly write to me privately, saying that they agree with me!).
I wager that the folks at NewSouth would be in the former group. They would likely turn down a proposal I sent suggesting that an edition of Measure for Measure open with a passage a little more comprehensible than "Of government the properties to unfold/Would seem in me to affect speech and discourse/Since I am put to know that your own science/Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice/My strength can give you."
This is Shakespeare, of course — heaven forbid we alter it! And yet, here are the same types open to altering Twain. Why? Wouldn't you know, it's the grand old race taboo. When it comes to this sequence of sounds beginning with "n" and ending with "r," all bets are off.
It reminds me of a searing passage from Shelby Steele's A Dream Deferred. He points out, to a white man who helped administer a Great Society program, that the program and ones like it didn't end up making people's lives better. The white man is livid, insisting just that the people were grateful, refusing to engage the question of the program's effectiveness.
In other words, this man was all about what the Great Society programs did for him, not black people. I regretfully suspect the same thing in the teachers' clutching of their pearls at the prospect of teaching a book full of characters using That Word. They aren't really afraid that their students will leave the classroom shouting the n-word at black kids. They just feel that the way to show they are good people is to studiously hold their noses and turn away from any embodiment whatsoever of that hideous slur. In a conversation I had with a white person about this, she actually insisted, "But the word offends me!"
It's as weak as a Victorian holding his ears at the mere utterance of a curse word, and every bit as performative.
We've come a long way indeed when there are cases in which white people are more offended by the n-word than the people it refers to. Call it progress, I guess. But it's a shame that it comes at the cost of teaching a bowdlerized version of, of all things, a book that captures the story of America between two covers.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root. He is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.