Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Whitewashing History

According to this article, NewSouth Books is planning to publish a book with Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn together.  Sounds awesome, right?  Except they're also going to go through and delete all the instances of the n-word and "injun" from the books.

Oy.  Let's start by talking about how much it pisses me off when we try to make our history look better.  And we (meaning, in this case, Americans) do it all the time.  (Oh, the Indians and the Pilgrims were such good friends, and they had the first Thanksgiving dinner together, yay!) We have this long-running narrative going on here in America that casts us as the heroes in our own history.  We are America.  We are the good guys.  We are all that is good and right and true.  Etc.  Yeah, right.  I ain't buyin' it!

There's also the insane level of political correctness that has taken over American culture.  No, neither the n-word nor "injun" is a nice word to use.  They were pejorative then, and they remain so today.  But making words into untouchable, taboo things only gives them more power--power, in this day and age, they shouldn't have.

Political correctness has become a way of masking -isms, making the world, on the surface, a nicer, less racist/sexist/homophobic place.  We get so caught up on the words that we forget to look at the intent.  We tiptoe around things, so afraid to offend, and it prevents us from having a real conversation about these issues.

Huckleberry Finn has been controversial since it was released.  It uses a lot of racially charged language.  But to me, it's not a racist book.  Part of Huck's journey through the story is overcoming his racist attitudes and ideas.  He learns to see Jim as a person, whereas many of the other characters often treat him (Jim) as if he's invisible.  Both Huck and Jim are marginalized by society, but in different ways, and by the end of the story we see how distanced Huck feels from the "civilized" folk--even his best friend, Tom Sawyer.

But let's take those terrible, horrible words out of the book.  Let's pretend they didn't exist--that they don't still exist.  Let's hide behind our own civilized, politically correct demeanors and say, "That's not how we are anymore.  We don't use those words.  We won't even let those words stay in a 130-year-old book anymore!"  Except not using the words doesn't mean the attitudes that Twain critiqued don't still exist!  And pretending they didn't exist, once upon a time--or at least downplaying them, so we don't destroy our children's fragile view of the world as a perfect and beautiful place--doesn't solve anything.

When I was reading Huckleberry Finn a few years ago on the Metro, I caught an African-American woman glaring at me, unfettered loathing in her gaze.  I don't know if it was because of the book or just because she had a bad day. I wanted to know what she found so offensive that it made her glare at a stranger on the Metro just for reading it.

But I didn't ask.  That's just not a conversation you can have in politically correct America.

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