Whitewashing Who We Were Doesn’t Erase Slavery

We live in the age of anti-bacterial hand-sanitizers. It’s as if we scour enough, we’ll get rid of everything offensive about us, even the bacteria.

We’re overkillers when it comes to cleaning, so it was a matter of time before such practices overtook the literary world.

We’re so politically correct now that it’s easy to forget things were ever offensive. Better to pretend we’re a happy-shiny society than to wallow in our real, albeit largely-past, flaws.

There I was, chillaxin’ on Twitter, when @PublishersWeekly tweeted that a new whitewashed (pun intended) version of Huckleberry Finn is being released.

In it, the word “nigger” will be replaced with “slave”.

Here’s the thing.

Picture-143-300x300When you think about that horrifying chapter of America’s history — the era of slavery — what cultural works come to mind right off the bat?

Two. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Even though the Library of Congress and other organizations have listed them amongst the books that have “changed the world,” both have been banned — even recently.

Yet, if we had a time capsule that was to reflect who and what America was in the 1800s, you can bet those two books would make the cut… whether you appreciate, in modern terms, the language used or not.

It’s pretty easy to argue that, during those times, people weren’t exactly breaking their typewriters pounding out future classics that recorded the slavery horrors around them. Ignorance was the safer order of the day.

Literature was about escapism then, not realism.

I get that “nigger” is said too much (219 times) in Huckleberry Finn. But are we really trying to suggest that, back then, the norm was using niceties like calling them “coloured folk” or “black” or even “slave”?

Isn’t the whole POINT of Huckleberry Finn being a classic the fact that it captures, in a beautiful and heart-rending story, the racial hatred and poison that marred America’s early days?

Isn’t the point that, in the middle of those times, bi-racial friendship could evolve against all odds? Wasn’t the story a glimmer of light about a darker era?

Shouldn’t the presence of the “offensive” words give schoolteachers the opportunity to discuss how powerful language can be — especially when used against people, in an attempt to oppress or hurt them?

Isn’t Twain’s language merely a stepping off point for talking about how word choice is important, how words can hurt as much or more than sticks and stones, how they ring out in our head long after blows stop landing?

Can’t that discussion help us in the battle we need to fight against modern bullying and other kinds of “schoolyard oppression” that change into darker themes as we age?

Whitewashing the language used in Huck Finn by taking the racist rhetoric from the book is exactly the kind of soul-destroying move that makes most writers cringe.

Language is everything in writing. We obsess over word choice. We wake in the night just to change a noun in our text.

“Nigger” is not “slave”. Nigger is a soul-crushing, race-dividing epithet. “Slave” is what we call them now — not historically relevant in words spoken then, though it is historically accurate.

Rewriting literature because of how society evolves is how we lose the impact of that literature, the relevance of that writing, the truth of its wordy-snapshots of our times. It kills truth.

That we once lived in a world where one could haphazardly toss around crushing racial epithets like “nigger” without anyone thinking twice, that’s something we not only need to remember, it’s something we need to remain aware of — to accept as part of who we once were and who we must strive to never be again.

racist_button_2We’re in a better day, but not by much. Not when African-Americans are a fraction of the population butalmost a majority of the penal system. Not when Tea Party freaks are shouting down a black president because they can’t handle his skin colour.

Huckleberry Finn’s linguistic offensiveness is exactly the way to further the almost non-existent dialogue on race in America. Instead of shutting it up and putting prettier words on the page so it’s less offensive, let’s wake the hell up.

HEY, it’s SLAVERY. It IS offensive. It SHOULD offend us. It should make schoolkids’ skin CRAWL when they learn what REALLY happened. WAKE UP.

They should learn how horrible tarring-and-feathering was, that slaves would be killed by being made to drink boiling water or oil, that lynching was a common “behaviour tool”.

Slaves weren’t just treated badly, all right? Let’s get real here. Let’s be honest about how horrible it was.

Saying the word “nigger” 219 times barely even scrapes the surface.

The country’s moving past its civil rights days, but race IS an issue in America and the conversation still isn’t something suitable for dinner parties. It’s skirted and avoided.

Our race is a part of who we are — we need to get to the point in society where we’re comfortable when comedians like Russell Peters joke about all the cliches that define us race-by-race.

We do that by accepting what we did wrong in the past, and then celebrating what we share in common — as well as celebrating those things that make us different, because it’s in that difference that we find the beauty of contrast.

Picture-144-231x300Let’s get past this ridiculous apologist crap about whining over words and try to accomplish real change by discussing why those words still need to be heard.

All this confusion keeps the real issue off the table. Just because America has a black president doesn’t mean society’s past this. Our refusal to discuss racism because of the presidential elephant in the room does us no favours.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Racism exists today.

Let’s show how horrible it was then;  we do that through the language.

Teach the book, the original language. In so doing, teach the pain, but also teach the better way we need to behave.

Teach that talking, not ignoring, is how we heal and grow.

Teach. Don’t confuse.