Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses the “n” word 219 times. Some readers just can’t get past the word, and thanks to a new edition, they won’t have to. The new version replaces every instance of the “n” word with the word “slave.” WNYC Radio Rookie Veralyn Williams offers a personal appraisal of the contentious word.
Somethin' Means Somethin'
Artist: by J Dilla
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in the U.S. in 1885, uses the N-word, according to one librarian, 219 times. Some readers just can't get past it, says Twain scholar and Auburn University professor Alan Gribben. So, in a new edition, to be published by NewSouth, he’s changed the N-word to “slave.” This, he told CBS News, quote, “enables us to set this inflammatory racial epithet aside and begin to address the greatness of Twain’s works.” But, Craig Hotchkiss, education program manager of the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, says the substitution makes no sense - slavery had been over for two decades, but segregation and racial degradation were rising, and that replacing that word removes not only what makes the racism so palpable to modern readers, it destroys the book’s potency as great historical literature and teaching tool. Five years ago, WNYC Radio Rookie Veralyn Williams offered us a personal appraisal of the N-word. We'll replay that now but, be warned, you'll hear it several times in her story.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: It never fails. About three times a week I'm trying to read on the train, and a bunch of rowdy teens get on and mess with my concentration.
[TEENS TALKING, LAUGHING] What bothers me is not the fact that they're loud because the train is always loud during rush hour, it's the fact that they're cursing up a storm and throwing the N-word around like it's nothing.
YOUNG MALE: This nigga' was always pointin’ it down at your feet, and we felt like –
[TEENS LAUGHING/TRAIN HUBBUB]
VERALYN WILLIAMS: My parents were raised in Sierra Leone and were stricter than a lot of Bronx parents. But growing up in my house the N-word just wasn't used. But then, I entered the real world, where not everyone grew up in my house. My ex-boyfriend uses the word all the time.
DAVID (ON TAPE): My name is David.
[VERALYN LAUGHING] My friends call me Scrooge.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: I recently came across this old interview of him I did for another story.
DAVID (ON TAPE): My shout’s just – all them drunk niggas out there, just -
VERALYN WILLIAMS (ON TAPE): All right, so -
VERALYN WILLIAMS: I was not surprised to hear him say the word. But I was shocked to hear what came next on the tape.
VERALYN WILLIAMS (ON TAPE): Is it okay - well, if you had a daughter, would you let her go out with a older nigga' or go out with a guy -
VERALYN WILLIAMS: There it was. I know I used to say the word from time to time, but realizing I said it on tape, that's embarrassing. To me, whether it's nig-ga or nig-ger, it represents hatred and makes me think of a person who is uneducated, lazy and basically good for nothing. Yet, I still said it. I was in a comfort zone, talking to David, and it just slipped out. And I am not the only one who says the word without thinking.
MAN ON STREET:- This is a messed up word. It shouldn't be used. It shouldn't be used by nobody.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Do you use the word?
MAN ON STREET: Sometime, yeah. I ain't gonna lie.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Why do you use the word?
MAN ON STREET: I don't know, you know, just - niggas use it in the hood all the time: “Nigga, what's up?” You know what I mean?
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Not everyone is conflicted though. I went to Harlem to ask people if they use the word, and most of them said they had no problem with it because they feel the meaning has changed.
MAN ON STREET: Hello, can I offer you a dental cleaning today?
VERALYN WILLIAMS: I was stopped by this guy trying to give me a free teeth cleaning in one of those dental vans.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Can I interview you on the N-word?
MAN: On the N-word?
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Yes.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Do you use the N-word?
MAN: All the time, nigga! No, I'm -
[END CLIP] I think it's just something that black people ought to be able to say, because we use it not, not to bring each other down, but to let each other know how far we came and where we came from and what we went through.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: I was talking to my friend Dre Obe. He's the editor of The Shield Magazine at my school, Hunter College. We were discussing how words can dehumanize, and he quoted a friend who used to be in a gang.
DRE OBE: He was saying it took more energy, like when you're saying, okay, I'm gonna kill this nigga, I'm gonna kill this nigga, like you didn't think anything about it. It was like "nigga" became that negative thing.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.
DRE OBE: He said but when you started to think about it, he said, if I was gonna say, I'm gonna kill my brother, I'm gonna kill that brother, they would have thought more about it.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: To me, that logic is one of the reasons slavery existed in this country for so long. Black people weren't considered human beings; they were niggers, and that made it a lot easier to treat them like animals. One thing almost everyone I talked to said is that it's never acceptable for white people to use the N-word.
MAN: I think that word has no power, unless you use it in a derogatory way.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: I was talking to this guy near Wall Street.
MAN: I'm white, and I have no problem saying, oh come on, you know you're my - you know you're my nigga, just like that! I've said it before, and I'll continue to say it. And if somebody African-American has a problem with it, they don't obviously live where I live and they don't know who my friends are, who I date. Words can only hurt if you let them. It's, it’s cliche-ish and corny, but it's true.
VERALYN WILLIAMS: Not when a word has history. I did feel way more offended hearin’ a white guy say the word and disregard that history. But playing devil's advocate, you cannot blame him if growin’ up he heard "nigga” being thrown around in the music he listened to and from his friends yelling on the subway. We can't have it both ways. Either we're honoring the history or we're not.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] As for me, I'm trying not to use the word at all anymore.
[MUSIC/UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Veralyn Williams reported this piece in 2006 as one of WNYC's Radio Rookies, a program that teaches teenagers how to report for the radio. To learn more, go to WNYC.org.