Mark Twain's "nigger"

The cowardice of removing the n-word from Huckleberry Finn.

If ever there was need to demonstrate the willingness of some Americans to downplay their country's undeniably racist history, this latest act of cultural revisionism should suffice. Fearing "pre-emptive censorship" at the hands of readers deemed too sensitive to make "textual encounters with this racial appellative", the Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben has put together a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word "nigger" with the supposedly less "demeaning" term "slave". Its publisher, NewSouth Books, has uploaded on its site an excerpt from Gribben's introduction, in which he explains: "We may applaud Twain's ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers."

That this repulsion -- blind to context or artistic validity -- is indicative of the US's still unresolved attitudes to race should not be lost to Gribben, who, for 40 years, has "led college classes, bookstore forums and library reading groups in detailed discussions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn". He recounts how students and audience members "seemed to prefer" his expurgated readings of Twain's work to the originals: "I could detect a visible sense of relief . . . as though a nagging problem with the text had been addressed." Yet surely the problem is not "with the text" but with the uncomfortable realities that the text cannot help but bring to the surface. If, as Gribben states, "the n-word remains inarguably the most inflammatory word in the English language", it demands to be asked why that is the case. Making it easier for readers to skirt the issue can only be a bad thing.

In his defence, Gribben cites the Harlem renaissance writer Langston Hughes and his 1940 plea for omitting the "incendiary word" from all literature. "Ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn't matter . . . [African Americans] do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic." Yet it is disingenuous of Gribben to take Hughes so literally on this point, especially since Hughes's own well-known poem "Ku Klux" uses the word to devastating effect:

A Klansman said, "Nigger,
Look me in the face --
And tell me you believe in
The great white race."

In his memoir, The Big Sea, Hughes wrote: "The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America." By erasing it from Huck Finn, Gribben isn't erasing "insult and struggle" from the soul of America so much as papering over the cracks. To obscure the word "nigger" by euphemism, the Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy once argued, is to "flinch from coming to grips with racial prejudice":

Given the power of "nigger" to wound, it is important to provide a context within which presentation of that term can be properly understood. It is also imperative, however, to permit present and future readers to see for themselves directly the full gamut of American cultural productions, the ugly as well as the beautiful, those that mirror the majestic features of American democracy and those that mirror America's most depressing failings.

In Huck Finn's speech, Twain himself was subverting the traditional racial categories of "white" and "black" -- something that other writers (including Shelley Fisher Fishkin, author of Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African American Voices) have explored in more depth than I can go into here. The character and book are inclusive of high life and low life, north and south, "sivilisation" and the "territories". It is this spirit of barrier-breaking inclusivity that marks out the work as distinctively American.

It boggles the mind that Gribben, an academic so clearly passionate about Twain and his achievements, should be willing to pander to the kind of readers who would unthinkingly allow his masterpiece to become the fifth most banned book of the 1990s. It would be a shame if schools in the US ever adopt his version into their curriculums.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

COURTESY OF PHILL WILLS
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The long journey home

A father’s fight for his autistic son.

It was a day that Phill Wills will never forget. After 158 weeks of making 520-mile train journeys from Cornwall to Birmingham and back again, he watched as his 15-year-old son, Josh, prepared to return home on 2 November last year.

“Three years we’d been going up and down [the country],” Wills tells me. “Suddenly I’m waking up and going to Josh’s unit – all of his things are boxed up and ready to go. And Josh knew . . . something big was about to happen.”

At the age of three, Josh was diagnosed with a severe form of autism. Affecting social interaction, communication and behaviour, autism is a spectrum disorder – it varies widely in how it affects individuals – and many of those with the condition need personalised support.

As a young boy, Josh would not respond to his name and he struggled to develop his speech. Then he started to hit himself. Self-inflicted injuries are common among those with autism – roughly 50 per cent hurt themselves. In Josh’s case, Wills tells me, initially the harm was manageable. His son enjoyed the outdoors and spending time with his family. He was a happy, tenacious boy. But the illness grew worse and the severity of his self-harm increased. After several incidents in 2012, he was admitted to the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro for three months, under heavy sedation.

Josh had been biting his tongue and lower lip. “He had the front third of his tongue amputated and he had lost a lot of his bottom lip,” his father recalls. “It was a horrendous time. We were told that his life was at risk from what he was doing to himself.”

Josh’s uncontrollable urge to hurt himself led doctors to equip him with a soft helmet of the kind used by amateur boxers. It was also decided that he should be moved to a specialist unit – and the closest one was in Birmingham.

A week after his 12th birthday, Josh boarded an ambulance for the trip there. Wills sat next to him. “I knew that we had to drive a mile out of Truro in Cornwall and, when you get a mile out, there’s a roundabout on the A30,” he says. “Josh’s mum and stepdad live off to the left. Birmingham was to the right. I said to everyone in the ambulance, ‘Just bear in mind that it doesn’t matter how heavily sedated he is. In a minute, he’s going to want to go left and there might be a bit of trouble.’” Moments later, the ambulance turned right – towards the support Josh needed, away from the environment he wanted. Despite being constrained by a seat belt, he lunged at Wills, headbutting him and cracking his father’s nose.

When he arrived at the unit, Josh was anxious and agitated. “Vocally, he’s not really able to communicate,” Wills tells me. “But the few things he was saying when he got there were ‘Mummy’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Gavin’ [his stepfather], ‘home’. He was trying to ask for anything to do with home. I felt like I was forcing him to go to some place he didn’t want to go. It was heartbreaking.”

The care that Josh received in Birmingham was excellent but for Wills the support wasn’t the issue. “It was always about the miles,” he says. Josh was expected to stay there for 12 weeks but that was extended when his condition failed to improve.

Wills made the train trip north on most Fridays, checking in to a hotel for the weekend. Though arduous, the journey allowed him to spend time with Josh doing what his son loved most, such as walking outdoors.

A video about Joshua coming home to his family.

To raise awareness of the lack of locally accessible facilities for autistic patients, Wills set up a petition: “Please bring my son back home.” He felt he had nothing to lose. “It had been 18 months of Josh being away and it didn’t look like he would be back any time soon.” The petition attracted 10,000 signatures in two days. In four months, that grew to almost 250,000.

The petition caught the attention of the former care minister Norman Lamb MP, who has campaigned to move autistic and mental health patients away from hospitals and into community care. He was pivotal in bringing Josh home. The campaign led to the building of a care home for Josh close to the beach in Cornwall. Padded walls minimise the damage he can do to himself, while the on-site staff include occupational therapists and other specialists.

The support has been made possible by Spectrum, a provider of specialist care services for people with autism and learning disabilities. Wills tells me that the company paid for the renovation of the building to accommodate Josh’s needs and it looks after his education. On weekdays, Josh spends three hours at a nearby school for autistic children. “I’d like to think that this sort of care package can be looked at and studied and delivered across the country,” he says.

Back in Cornwall, Josh spends much more time with his family. He is happier and more comfortable in the familiar surroundings of his childhood. His return has been life-changing for Wills, too. “His new home is just down the road. But go back a year, and I’d be now – on a Friday afternoon – jumping on a train to Birmingham.” 

You can learn more about Spectrum, the provider of care services you provided Josh and his family with help, at their website.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain