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Plan to revise 'Huck Finn' prompts an important debate

On Thursday afternoon in the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library's Ring of Knowledge, a community meeting space on the building's first floor, a group of citizens gathered to celebrate the life and achievements of Martin Luther King Jr.

The 32nd annual event featured performances from the Colored Musicians Club, poetry by Miguel Santos and Louz Garcia and a presentation by students from Bennett Park Montessori School on the message and legacy of the great civil rights leader whose holiday we celebrate Monday.

Just a few steps away from the festivities, pages from the original, handwritten manuscript of Mark Twain's 1865 novel "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," one of the prized possessions of the library's rare book collection, were on display for inspection in the Mark Twain Room.

Over the the past month, the words Twain scrawled in that manuscript some 130 years ago have become the center of a national controversy over a single noun whose use is tied up as much with the literature of Mark Twain as with the lessons and the history of racial prejudice in this country. That word is "nigger."

Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University in Alabama and recognized Twain scholar, has produced a new version of the text in which Twain's 215 instances of the word have been replaced with "slave." The new edition, Gribben argues, will put Twain's work into the hands of teachers and students whose parents or school administrators have denied them access to the text based on its use of the word.

But news of the new edition has raised the hackles of academics, readers, librarians and pundits around the world. It has also had the remarkable effect of bringing together vocal figures on the right (such as conservative commentator Michelle Malkin) and left (provocative University at California professor and former Buffalonian Ishmael Reed), who argue that the author's words are sacrosanct and that changing them is tantamount to rewriting history.

Neil Schmitz, a retired University at Buffalo professor and Twain scholar, argued that Twain's use of the N-word in "Huck Finn" is central to the novel's structure and to its author's progressive views on racial equality. He called the N-word "the most powerful word in American literature."

"Without it, the novel sort of collapses," Schmitz said. "I mean, the whole purpose of the novel is in the power of that word. And to sort of take it out just seems to me to be utterly stupid."

Schmitz said that Twain's employment of the N-word was meticulously planned.

"Whenever Huck is threatened or afraid or is going to do something bad, he reaches for that word," Schmitz said. "When he's on track and he's listening to his conscience, the word disappears."

Harvard professor Randall Kennedy, in his provocative 2002 book "Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word," rails against those who have criticized Twain's book for its use of the term. "Twain is not willfully buttressing racism here; he is seeking ruthlessly to unveil and ridicule it," Kennedy wrote. "By putting 'nigger' in white characters' mouths, the author is not branding blacks, but rather branding the whites."

George Saunders, the noted satirist and Twain expert who teaches at Syracuse University, wrote in an e-mail to The News that he thought the censorship of the word was "a terrible idea" and that "Twain wrote the book and we should play it as it lays/lies."

But it seems all the academics and pundits in the world won't convince many parents and school administrators that including the word in teaching -- even in a manner as instructive and self-critical as in the context of "Huck Finn" -- is a good idea.

Ntare Ali Gault, who teaches literature and poetry to students at schools in the city and suburbs through local arts nonprofits, said he supports the elimination of the word from the book not only for school children, but also for adults.

"I'll admit, as far as Mark Twain using it and using it in white culture, European culture, I have a huge problem with it," said Gault, who is black. "I'd like to see it cut down because it's become far too pervasive within the society."

Even if you disagree with Gault, it is vital to attempt to understand the meaning and motivation of his position, because it represents that of many. For Gribben's audience, the word is simply loaded too much of history's pain, too much of today's racism and too much of language's awesome power to spread those cruel forces into the future.

The discussion and debate about the word and all it implies has never been simple, it's never been resolved and it's likely to stay that way for quite some time. But it helps to keep in mind that Twain's use of the word was aimed at creating just such a conversation -- a conversation we've been having for more than 130 years. And that, no matter where you stand on the issue, is the mark of a great work of art.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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