Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn and the “N” Word

In February, two new editions of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn will be released, “expurgated” versions published by an Auburn University professor who has always had a problem with saying the “N” word himself.

On some level, I liken this to making Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird just shot in the leg when he tried to escape. It’s certainly easier to live with that way—denial always is. That’s its point.

Sure, I wish that I had not learned the lessons of loss, of betrayal, of humankind’s propensity toward inhumanity as early as I did. I wish that I could have escaped the fact that my father abandoned his family, or seeing my grandfather die virtually in front of me at age nine, that I’d never seen JFK’s caisson on television, that I’d not known Vietnam as a daily presence in my life, that I’d learned about Selma and Birmingham and Philadelphia the way I learned about the Jewish holocaust during WWII—through stories from my grandparents and documentaries—because it happened before I was born.

But I didn’t.

That’s probably why I came to love Mark Twain, a wounded child himself because of the things he saw as a boy and a wounded and bitter man at his death because of the losses he sustained throughout his life. I’m sure it’s why, though a Southerner, I have always been unwilling to pretend that I never saw the black people in my town enter the theatre from a door on the street or felt the sting of disdain as a girl because I couldn’t be a minister because I was missing a required appendage.

I’m fairly sure my early acquaintance with grief and the harsher things we do to each other is why my “take” on the Bible was from the get-go a bit different from the average reader, too. I loved Jesus because he “called a spade a spade,” a phrase I worry about the origin of, because he confronted the mechanisms of our human denial, forcing us to look at the cruelty with which we treat each other.

He might have yelled out, “Look at me!” as he hung on the cross, “Look at what you’ve deteriorated into!” But that would probably have been heard by those around as a battle cry to go kill the SOBs who’d nailed him up there, and I’ve never been able to accept it.

I do not believe Jesus was God-sent as a sacrificial lamb to die for the sins of the world. The sacrifice occurred when God took on human form in the first place, limiting the unlimited capacity for love by encaging it in flesh. In so doing, God showed us the possible, and still we don’t see it. I imagine Jesus wept more than once.

A few years ago, I visited Mark Twain’s grave in Elmira, NY. It was an accident—I’d assumed he was buried in Hartford. My friends and I were in the area because we’d gone to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and were driving around on our way back to Rochester. I remember standing there after I’d visited the museum housed at Elmira College and stood in the “gazebo” in which he penned Huckleberry Finn one summer while visiting his sister-in-law (she’d built it out on the edge of a cliff for him so that he’d take his cigar smoke elsewhere). I thought of him looking out over the valley, trying to “expurgate” the demons of what he had seen as a boy from his soul.

I left there that day feeling sad for him—sad that those around him had separated him as a child from the God who understood everything that he’d experienced, the God who could have wrapped him in her arms. But mostly I felt proud of him, because he was willing to tell the truth about the human condition, about his pain, his mistakes, and his disappointment.

It’s a fact. African-Americans were once called the “N” word. It’s hard for me to hear, no matter who says it, and I can’t bring myself to say it either, just like the Auburn professor. But let’s not pretend it never happened and doesn’t happen today. Let’s own up to it, along with the host of other slights and atrocities we’ve committed against each other. Let’s beg each other and God for forgiveness at our inhumanity.

That’s something I’d be proud for our children to see.


Here’s the link to the broader article that appeared today in the Christian Science Monitor.


One thought on “Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn and the “N” Word

  1. Lisa, I not only don’t think you shallow–I think you incredibly brave, and I am inspired by your honesty. I sat having a wonderful conversation about racism with an African-American woman a few years ago and as we neared the end, I said, "Why is it that we can sit and talk like this but not out there in the world?" She looked at me and smiled. "You know I can’t say what I just said to you when I’m with ‘my people.’" Boy, did I ever learn something that day–like it or not, we’re tribes, and our first defense is tribal.Difference scares us–so much that we stop looking for the similarities that bind us together in that one "human" race. We all bleed red, we all want to matter, we all want to belong–and it’s easier to belong if we look more like the others in the group. If we don’t, we stick out like a "sore thumb," and sometimes sticking out isn’t quite what it cracks up to be.So, I have a question for you: Is it really that you care if your grandchildren are "pink," or is it that you love/will love your grandchildren so much that you don’t want to see them hurt, don’t want them to be rejected on the basis of something they can’t control, want them to feel loved and valued, and you know the world’s still not ready to let them be?

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