By Gerald Hausman
Bokeelia, FL, USA
Illustration from the 1884 Edition of
Divided America runs rampant in the recent controversy over changing certain emotionally charged words in Mark Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn
. Maybe we've heard enough about all of this, and maybe we haven't. But changing the words of a famous and popular writer from another century because they are deemed "hurtful" and "injurious" raises the question - to whom?
If English teachers can't manage to teach the book to elementary and middle school students because of the N word and the I word, maybe they shouldn't teach it at that grade level at all. Twain himself detested even the smallest punctuation changes in his writing and once threatened to shoot an egregious typesetter "without giving him time to pray."
So here we go again, confused nation, fixing that which can't be fixed. It's history, darn it, dang it, dumb it all, and we shouldn't rewrite it, even if one word at a time. Nigger Jim is what he was, not merely a slave, as he will now be known in the redacted version of this great novel. Slave Jim doesn't cut it. Neither does Indian Joe, for Injun Joe. Or maybe we should call the black man, Subservient Jim and the Indian, Indigenous Joe. A slippery sloppy Alabama slope, folks, and we're sliding on it North and South.
Up North, a poet friend of mine tells me he heard two white youths on a Brattleboro, Vermont street corner greeting each other - "Hey, nigga, s'up?" His friend replies, "Just cool, nigga, s'up with you?"
Down South, my multi-racial granddaughter told me last night that at her South Miami high school, which is predominantly black and Hispanic, "The word nigger is rarely used among friends and is disrespectful. Nigga is like dawg, having nothing to do with color. It's used among friends of different races and sometimes simply means dummy. In Spanish, if someone wants to say that a kid's black, it's just negrito."
The lack of racial discord in hip-hop language is often interesting. As Wikipedia points out, the origin word for African in many world languages is neger, deriving from the root niger. In Jamaica, to this day, the old patois naygamon means person of African origin or black person; not pejorative just descriptive. A dark coral-head in the sea is often described as a naygahead. There's really no problem in Jamaica with naygamon, chineemon, indianmon. In fact, when Bob Marley was asked by a reporter for The West Indian in 1976 if it was his intention to "free niggers" Bob asked " - Where you get that word nigger from?"
Wikipedia also comments (quoting a writer from BET) that "In the African-American community, the word nigga (not nigger) brings out feelings of pride."
Professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University, Cornel West stated, "There's a certain rhythmic seduction to the word. If you speak in a sentence, and you have to say cat, companion, or friend, as opposed to nigger, then the rhythmic presentation is off. That rhythmic language is a form of historical memory for black people..."
Carrying this a little further, when Ernest Hemingway wrote To Have and Have Not, his cracka narrator says, "He's a real black nigger, smart and gloomy..." the language here is rhythmical rather than prejudicial. Should we alter this book as well as The Nick Adams Stories because they're not appropriate any more? My granddaughter tells me that the word cracka (originally, Florida cracker, a white person of native Floridian background) is now generic. My granddaughter says, "It could be any white person who's out of line or annoying, ignorant - or none of these, just white".
I mentioned to her that in the olden days in Jamaica, a cracka was called a walkin' buckra - a kind of bossman without wheels. Which is to say, a man walking on the road without a carriage, as would be deemed proper in the 19th century plantocracy. An overseer was metamorphosed into obisha from which we get busha, a word still in use on the island.
Today, country Jamaicans may call a white person whitey - a word not pejorative, merely descriptive. But one should remember that Jamaica's motto is "Out of Many, One People", and they do live by that code.
One day, and I hope in my lifetime, we'll settle down and love our differences the way they do in Jamaica.
But for the time being, let's not split Twain in twain.
Mark Twain and 1884 flyer for "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"
Gerald Hausman - Author & Storyteller
Gerald Hausman's profile at Stay Thirsty Publishing
Gerald Hausman, author and storyteller, calls himself a native of the world. He is the author of 70 books, some of which have been made into films, many of which have been translated into foreign languages. His latest book, The American Storybag, was released by Stay Thirsty Press in October, 2010.