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A Few Words In Defense of the N-Word, in the Novels of Mark Twain

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Well, here's a piece I never imagined myself writing: A defense of a white man's use of the N-word.

I want to start with a little back-story: I don't use the N-word. Not ever. But I used to, not so long ago. I used it in the context of talking about racism in my psychology of race and ethnicity course and only when quoting the written words of scholars and prominent historical figures.  I stopped (about 5 years ago) after several students told me that hearing the word, even in this context, was painful for them.  I stopped because it was clear to me that the students were sincere and because I thought I could teach the content just as well by saying "N-word".

I haven't questioned this choice since then, but ever since the Huck Finn story broke, I've been doing just that.  See, all of the students who complained that hearing "n-word" in class was painful were white and so it seems is the vast proportion of people who a) kept Huckleberry Finn off the school curriculum and b) like the idea of a "cleaner" version of Mark Twain's novel.

Now I don't want to over-stress this point. The feelings and needs of white people matter too. It's why I switched to using "N-word" in my class. But the source of the discomfort is not irrelevant either.  For one, it suggests whose needs are being considered and served by the given act.  As far as I can tell, the new (edited) edition of Huck Finn is primarily designed to serve the needs of white conservatives.  This too is okay, as long as we acknowledge that this is what's happening and not pretend that this is some kind of racially progressive act that will improve the lives of people of color.


Here's Huck with "slave" Jim by commons

It's more complicated than that, of course. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, law professor Paul Butler (who is Black) wrote

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"I suffered through Huckleberry Finn in high school, with the white kids going out of their way to say "n-word Jim" and the teacher's tortured explanation that Twain's "n-word" didn't really mean n-word, or meant it ironically, or historically, or symbolically. Whatever."

No doubt Butler's experiences were not unusual for either his time or today, and I wouldn't wish them on anyone. Student racial insensitivity and teacher discomfort with both our country's racist past and contemporary racial inequity are serious problems requiring thoughtful strategies. I just happen to think that the strategy of removing racially objectionable content cannot possibly be effective in anything other than eliminating discomfort, and I am becoming increasingly convinced that, from an educational standpoint, the elimination of discomfort is counterproductive.

Discomfort is feedback. Sometimes it is an indication that our beliefs and values are being challenged. Other times (as in Butler's recollection of his school experience), it is an internal message that something isn't working well.  Either way, I wish the discomfort would be engaged, rather than avoided.  For teachers and school administrators who are too embarrassed, uncomfortable, and quite possibly uninformed to teach about our country's racist past, it means creating or finding a way to further their own learning and growth. For students, it means not only understanding the story's plot but the complex racial dynamics of Twain's Mississippi and their own school and community. Part of that understanding is some sense of how the N-word was used historically and it's impact on Black people both then and now.

Proponents of the new edition will point out that other editions are readily available, and of course they are.  But to me, this isn't about personal choice, which I hold very dear, but about the inevitable imposition of power in the educational system. The books used by schools are selected by school boards and administrators, not students and parents. To be sure, the school boards and administrators likely to choose this edition are probably those which previously left Huckleberry Finn off the curriculum altogether. Frankly, the trade-off isn't worth it to me. I'd rather the schools avoid the book entirely than treat it and the history it represents dishonestly.  Unlearning is always much, much harder than new learning.

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Mark Twain's racial politics were decades ahead of his time by commons

Oh, and by the way: I wouldn't feel this way if we were discussing a racist novel. Twain was a progressive whose racial politics were decades ahead of his time. He used the word to "ridicule" the racism of his day, not endorse it or legitimize it. The problem with the original Huck Finn isn't the N-word but with our own aversive racism. If we are to heal as a nation, this too we must engage rather than avoid.

Which brings me back to my own classroom: Next time I teach my race class (Fall, 2011), we're going to have a conversation about the N-word as a group. I'll let the class make the decision, but only after we engage with and consider the multiple perspectives. I look forward to discovering how that goes.

 

http://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~lyubansk/

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level restorative justice practicum based at a youth detention center. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been learning, facilitating, evaluating, and supporting others in the U.S. in learning about Restorative Circles, a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and his associates. In addition to conflict and restorative practices, Mikhail also has a long-standing interest (going back about 20 years) in race and (more...)
 

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First of all it is completely smacks of censorship... by Laura Roberts on Thursday, Jan 6, 2011 at 10:34:01 PM
that we are talking about six of twenty-six letter... by Daniel Geery on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 11:51:22 AM
n-word...I grew up in the South and it was common ... by William Chappell on Thursday, Jan 6, 2011 at 11:40:21 PM
Thanks for the comment, William. It clearly came f... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Thursday, Jan 6, 2011 at 11:46:11 PM
Sticks and Stone will break my bones but names wil... by William Chappell on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 12:03:38 AM
It does not carry the same emotional weight, and t... by Allen Oliver on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 3:43:35 PM
you might be a redneck. There's nothing like a wel... by Margaret Bassett on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 6:12:38 AM
Slavery is the deed of the devil. That's how it is... by Mark Sashine on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 6:25:08 AM
(Loved this comment....just like I love Mark Sashi... by Ned Lud on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 7:25:24 AM
In a real incisive way, Mark may be have jus... by Margaret Bassett on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 6:36:19 AM
Slumbag buy slumbag mugs, tshirts and magnets 1. A... by Mark Sashine on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 6:58:30 AM
I want the Mona Lisa to show her magnificent perfe... by Ned Lud on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 7:35:36 AM
1-why is this book a conservative project?2- pain ... by Rob Kall on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 8:05:10 AM
These are good questions, Rob. Thanks for asking t... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 9:32:09 AM
was born long before 1884, and from what I am told... by Allen Oliver on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 2:09:25 PM
to purchase for themselves, but only the original ... by John Sanchez Jr. on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 8:54:30 AM
Thanks, John. I agree that it should be a persona... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 9:15:26 AM
A reader sent me this note, privately:We need to k... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 10:21:17 AM
I understand why Twain used the word because now I... by Allen Oliver on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 3:35:54 PM
Allen, most all of my grade school was in an all w... by Ned Lud on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 5:15:43 PM
Feeling a lot of appreciation for your willingness... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 10:54:02 PM
...when you say "And in my own ignorance I could n... by Meryl Ann Butler on Wednesday, Jan 12, 2011 at 9:17:31 PM
Excellent post. thank you. Huck was a political b... by amos richardson on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 5:07:34 PM
by censoring the word is to only whitewash the rac... by Allen Oliver on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 10:59:14 AM
I am looking forward to hearing back from you guys... by Allen Oliver on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 11:06:06 AM
But I bet you can jump better than me.Seriously, w... by Ned Lud on Monday, Jan 10, 2011 at 11:31:17 AM
And my nephew breaks all myths about black guys, b... by Allen Oliver on Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011 at 12:30:50 PM
Hey, I think I might know some of those -uhh- circ... by Ned Lud on Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011 at 1:55:01 PM
I believe you were. I truly believe you were. :&g... by Allen Oliver on Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011 at 3:13:03 PM
Allen, you're right that Obama can pretty much cou... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011 at 12:50:23 PM
Party lines are one thing and racial lines another... by Allen Oliver on Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011 at 2:07:40 PM
When my daughter was young I used to read to her ... by Jonathan Allen on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 9:16:44 PM
Lawyers do a Westlaw search on use of the n-word i... by steveswimmer on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 10:03:30 PM
I am white and the high school freshman I know is ... by Margaret Bassett on Friday, Jan 7, 2011 at 11:46:26 PM
I like both of those books. A lot! The only concer... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 12:15:49 AM
has been on my top ten list for years and I could ... by Allen Oliver on Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011 at 6:45:41 PM
It's hard to think of a book, or even its author, ... by Margaret Bassett on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 7:05:08 AM
for bringing sensibility to this subject which is ... by Mary Pitt on Monday, Jan 10, 2011 at 1:31:17 PM
The primary issue in the US is that the race probl... by Mark Sashine on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 7:09:29 AM
The sickness of which you describe Mark, which see... by Ned Lud on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 7:40:12 AM
We are all in it, man. Sometimes big minds guide u... by Mark Sashine on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 7:52:23 AM
Mikhail: The caliber of your research and ... by Ecor on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 7:14:20 AM
Dick Gregory broke barriers, most likely even betw... by Margaret Bassett on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 1:35:57 PM
Slave? Mark Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson" proves bey... by steveswimmer on Saturday, Jan 8, 2011 at 3:32:58 PM
It is so ironic that the people most concerned wit... by Rebecca Olsen on Monday, Jan 10, 2011 at 9:53:54 AM
Why was my post censored? His name is not n word J... by Rebecca Olsen on Monday, Jan 10, 2011 at 10:11:33 AM
It's a little bureaucratic malefaction they pull h... by Ned Lud on Monday, Jan 10, 2011 at 11:21:05 AM
Ned!! that was my chuckle for the day!... by Allen Oliver on Monday, Jan 10, 2011 at 4:04:48 PM
Hi Rebecca,The site is programmed to automatically... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Monday, Jan 10, 2011 at 11:26:46 AM
We need to keep this commentary running. It could... by Allen Oliver on Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011 at 12:37:45 PM
based on political correctness, like the books or ... by Michael Morris on Monday, Jan 10, 2011 at 9:55:38 AM