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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Latest form of censorship: rewriting history

The subject of controversy ever since it was first published more than 125 years ago, Mark Twain's classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is making waves once again after a publishing company announced it would release a new version without the incendiary word "nigger."

According to Publishers Weekly, the new edition will replace the inflammatory term — which appears 219 times in the original novel — with the word "slave." It will also drop the word "Injun" and should be available in the U.S. next month.

Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books will publish the new version in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which will sell for $24.95 U.S..

"This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colour-blind," Gribben told Publishers Weekly. "Race matters in these books. It's a matter of how you express that in the 21st century."

Not surprisingly, the move has many in the literary world screaming foul.

"You're changing not just this novel, but you're rewriting history in a way," said University of Toronto English professor Alan Ackerman, who just finished teaching the novel to a class of 250 students.

Noting the novel is set in the South in the 1830s before slavery was abolished in the United States, Ackerman said it was written 20 years after the official end of slavery at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was emerging and freed slaves in the south had become targets of a wave of violent racial persecution.

"If you don't want people to know that evil things happened in history, then I guess that's the way to go," he said.

While the novel has been either challenged or outright banned in classrooms ever since it was first published, Ackerman called this latest form of censorship "richly ironic" given what's readily available on the Internet.

Furthermore, he said, author Junot Diaz captured the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008 for his book The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and he "uses the word nigger everywhere.

"So do our rap and hip hop stars," he added. "I find that more disturbing frankly than the fact Twain uses it in Huckleberry Finn."

African-American academic Peaches Henry agrees dropping the word is a mistake, as it "erases the historical accuracy of the novel."

"To substitute a euphemism . . . for nigger robs students . . . of a valuable learning experience," said Henry, an English professor from Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

" The use of nigger . . . opens up an avenue for teachers and students to deal with the complex issue of race and racism as it has impacted the United States historically and contemporaneously." (Continues here)

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