Many of you have probably caught wind of the news that Alan Gribben has taken Mark Twain’s two most famous works, Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and edited out all the “racially sensitive” slang, replacing “nigger” with “slave” throughout and “injuns” with something more PC…
The blogosphere is all atwitter about this, and there is universal agreement that this is a bad idea, for so many reasons. There’s the straight-up anti-censorship argument, the cultural whitewashing argument, the fact that replacing the word nigger with slave is completely inaccurate – like calling all rectangles squares.
These two books are some of the most banned, perhaps even THE most banned in the USA, and it is largely because “the ‘n’ word” is used 219 times throughout. This, says Alan Gribben, is the reason for making the changes. If he edits out those words, perhaps more children will read these works.
Sure Alan, maybe. BUT, will they get the same meaning from them? Will they get the same message? Will this white-washing of the text still impart the same wisdom?
Nope. It won’t, and here’s why. Perspective.
I am appalled by how little historical perspective today’s children have. My 2nd grader has never heard of pilgrims. She doesn’t know why we celebrate Thanksgiving. I didn’t realize that until this year when our preschooler got to educate her on the holiday. As a historian I was appalled. Appalled that she hadn’t been taught in schools, and appalled that I hadn’t caught their omission and filled it in for her.
Sure, the version of history that I was taught at that age was FILLED with white-washing, but at least I had a starting place. And that starting place included the “fact” that a bunch of white folk sailed over on some boats and “discovered” a new continent filled with people.
In first grade I asked my parents how you could discover a place that was already populated, didn’t that mean someone else had already discovered it? I learned about perspective. To the Europeans, this was a new continent. It wasn’t on any of their maps. (Though, new discoveries have proven that Columbus actually DID have a Chinese map that included South and North America and knew exactly where he was going, but he had to tell his royal sponsors a different story because they didn’t believe him.) To the Native Americans, the Europeans were at first a nuisance, and later invaders, and finally conquerors.
My 2nd grader didn’t have this starting place though, she had no sense that we (whiteys) had come from somewhere else. That we are, in fact, a rogue invasive species. She had no idea that this continent once belonged to someone else.
In the ongoing ethnic battle in Arizona, many of the people making decisions also lack the necessary historical perspective. That battle is not about immigration, no matter how they try to frame it. How many of the people they are trying to keep out were expelled from their ancestral lands at the end of the Mexican American war? How many of the Hispanic people in Arizona have more claim to those lands than the white usurpers? There is a saying in the Southwest, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” We stole that land, not from Spain, but from the native peoples who lived there long before any Europeans tried to lay claim to it.
In Mark Twain’s day white Americans owned Africans. OWNED THEM. The Civil War ended when he was 30 years old, but the prejudice against black people didn’t just go away. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published in 1876, eleven years after the Civil War ended. He wrote it the way he did because he wanted to illuminate the persistent prejudices and bigotry still rampant in the Southern states. (And, many of the Western states. After my husband and I bought our first home in Eugene, OR we read our CC&Rs and learned that our house was in a designated “Whites Only” neighborhood. It was built in 1976! That covenant was not revoked until a federal law overruled it in the mid-eighties!!)
By whitewashing Mark Twain’s texts to make them more PC, more socially palatable, Alan Gribben is eliminating this perspective. He is eliminating an uncomfortable truth about the history of white folk on this continent. We are not all-knowing, all-loving, all-wise, benign, benevolent leaders, bringing savages into civilized society as many would like people to believe. No, we have a history of being domineering, cruel and capricious.
We (people of European descent) have a long history of being on the wrong side of history. And our children need to know that. They need to learn from our collective mistakes. They need to see the other side. Sure, it’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, but if we only have comfortable conversations we run the risk of raising a generation of clueless, spoiled, entitled brats. And the last batch of those spent a decade handing out small-pox blankets to women and children so they could steal land, gold and chocolate…