And Never the Twain Shall Meet

I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…

Last month an outfit called NewSouth Books almost published a new edition of one of the greatest (some people believe it to be the greatest) of American works of fiction, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It was written by a man my mother’s mother’s family knew as Sam Clemens. My grandmother Ethel Clemens was passing proud of her Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam, of course, wrote under the name Mark Twain.

I say “almost published” because the so-called editors of this new edition contrived their editorial effort to the intellectually parsimonious task of replacing one word with a different word, wherever that one word appeared. That one word is nigger. A better, less offensive word, these editors decided, is slave. It must have taken them all of three seconds to use the find-and-replace tool to desecrate this American classic and emasculate the power the original word still holds. Thus have the editors made Huckleberry Finn more pleasing to the delicate.

Now the word slave shouldn’t give pause to anyone: few people are slaves by choice, and any negative connotations impart to the masters rather than slaves. But the word nigger has negative connotations galore, which are at least intended to impart to the nigger. That word was very much a part of the time of Huckleberry Finn, and remains a part of our own time.

I grew up with the childhood rhyme, “Eenie meenie minie mo, catch a nigger by the toe.” We sang “Little black Sambo lived in the jungle, and today’s his happy birthday.” (That tune and lyric still go through my mind from time to time, uncensored.) I didn’t know any niggers, hadn’t met any black people. I think I knew the word was somehow wrong, but I didn’t know why. But the people who taught me the rhyme and the song knew, and with the dawn of the civil rights movement I learned the why of it.

It was the ungodly why of it that made it important never to forget the word is a scourge coming from the lips of the ignorant or hateful.

Uncle Sam wasn’t a hateful man according to the people who knew him. And Huck wasn’t a hateful boy. He loved the nigger Jim, and at the same time lived in a hateful world that tagged the slave with that obscenity. So Sam used the word in his book, used it 219 times. That was at least a part of his point. The NewSouth editors think he can make the same point with the word slave. I don’t think so. I doubt anyone has been struck by the six times I’ve already used slave in this piece. I’m pretty sure everyone has prickled at least a little at the six times I’ve used the other word, the word NewSouth doesn’t think you should have to look at. I want you to take a good look at it:

nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger

That’s the other 213 times. I look at that block of words, and feel sadness, hatred, and shame. You probably feel something too. I know Uncle Sam did.

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