Should Racial Epithets Be Removed From Classics?

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A big controversy this week swirled around literary and education circles with the news that a new edition of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn replaced the word "nigger" with "slave." My stomach churns as I type the racial epithet. But that's exactly the point. And as I survey most of the responses from the New York Times' Learning Network, which asked students and teachers to weigh in on whether the word should have been deleted, I see they agree.

According to the Times, lan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University at Montgomery who has been teaching Mark Twain for many years and always hesitated before reading the word aloud, asked the publisher to replace every mention of it throughout the book.

“I’m by no means sanitizing Mark Twain,” Mr. Gribben said. “The sharp social critiques are in there. The humor is intact. I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone.” (The book also substitutes “Indian” for “injun.”)

I think what unnerves people most about this is the idea that removing the charged word -- and all of its fraught implications -- will result in whitewashing an ugly part of American history for future generations. If we remove the word from Huckleberry Finn now, what other words and passages from important literary works will be deleted from memory in the future?

Here are a few responses from readers:

"If the word is to be banned from use in classic, historic literature, it must be completely removed from the English language."

“I actually think this is a great idea, and I could make a lot of easy money by making 'sanitized' versions of 'offensive' classics. A few ideas: The Diary of Anne Frank - She still has to hide in the attic, but in the end, the Nazis are just playing hide-and-go-seek and not find-and-go-holocaust. Catcher in the Rye - All the bad language taken out, I'll save 60% on printing costs Lolita - In my version, Lolita is 34.”

"Each time these words come up in reading, it is a sharp reminder of our country's ugly past. It is a travesty that some will never get that experience because of Gribben's weak stomach. Mark Twain was telling it as it was, not in a way that characterizes slavery as polite and comfortable.”

"Yes, I do think that racial epithets should be removed. When we read the book in class together to teacher tells us not to say “______”. The teacher doesn’t even read it herself. I can see a good reason it can be replaced with slaves. I just don’t really like when we have to constantly pause or skip the word and continue with the reading. It confuses me. At first back in elementary school when my class was reading a novel that had that word I was lost.”

"As a teacher who has recently taught Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ to a group of disaffected 15 year olds, I have some thoughts on this. When the ‘N’ word first came up in our reading, they were shocked and it created quite a reaction. However, it also enabled us to open up the discussion on racism, and allowed them to understand how much America has progressed since the 1930s. A valuable lesson which a less offensive word would have prevented from taking place."