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FIRST-PERSON: Don’t sanitize America’s past

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–A professor at Auburn University has produced new versions of two American classics, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” It seems English professor Alan Gribben has long been offended by the racial epithets in both books. As a result, his book due out in February has expunged language he deemed offensive.

Gribben saw fit to remove 219 “objectionable passages” from the works produced by Mark Twain. The two most offensive and oft-scrubbed words, according to the professor, are the n-word and “injun.” Gribben has replaced the slurs with the terms “slave” and “Indian.”

“I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching … ” Gribben said. “And I don’t think I am alone.”

I can appreciate Professor Gribben’s disdain for the language employed by Twain. Most people today agree that the descriptive terms used in both books are degrading and demeaning. However, in Twain’s day the offensive language was part and parcel of the vernacular.

Past people, events and products must be viewed within an historical context or they lose all meaning and relevance. This is particularly true when it comes to literature. Works of fiction and non-fiction alike can only be understood by examining the times in which they were produced.

Twain’s most famous books were published in the late 1800s in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though slavery had been abolished, it was still a fresh memory and racism was the order of the day.

Twain’s prose was a scathing examination of the inhumane and uncivil treatment meted out to minorities. He used the vulgar slurs commonly slung at blacks and Indians at the time to shame the terms, not praise them.

To mute the language in Twain’s books is to downplay the harsh realities minorities have had to endure in the United States. Softening the language used by Twain comes off as an effort to ignore the ugly reality of racism.

“Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” serve as stark reminders of a dark time in the history of America. However, Twain’s books are also evidence that the United States has come a long way with respect to race relations.

Some will argue that progress is still yet to be made concerning racial equality in America. And that may be true. However, the fact that the n-word is more often than not today referred to as the n-word, and not the term used so freely by Twain, is proof positive that an advance has been made.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published approximately three decades before Twain’s books. Stowe uses the same language as Twain and does so in order to paint a picture of the harsh realities of slavery. As a result, many believe the book was one of the catalysts for the Civil War.

In the world of excessive sensitivity, Stowe’s book would be expunged of all offensive content. However, in reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” without any racially charged language, one may wonder why Stowe wrote the book as well as what made it so significant.

If the study of history is to have any value at all it must be studied warts and all and free and from any sanitation. This includes literary works.

One aspect of the Bible that many historians admire is that it does not present the history of God’s followers as a perfect people. Significant personalities are presented with flaws, and their sins are exposed. Tragedies are given the same treatment as triumphs.

People of faith are expected to learn from the historical record provided by the Bible, even the mistakes made by God’s followers.

Every person, event and product must be studied in an historical context or they lose all meaning and relevance. “Those who do not learn from history,” philosopher George Santayana observed, “are doomed to repeat it.” Sanitizing historical literature like “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” might make some people feel better, but it will not educate anyone.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs