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Cutting N-word from Twain is not censorship

By Boyce Watkins, Special to CNN
  • Boyce Watkins says censorship usually wrong; taking n-word from Twain not pure censorship
  • Editor of new "Huck Finn" edition makes some teachers, parents more likely to teach it, he says
  • To say that "filtering" content is unethical is unrealistic; parents do it all the time, he says
  • Watkins: Freedom of artist should exist with freedom to reject art and create alternative

Editor's note: Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and the resident scholar for AOL Black Voices. He is also the author of the book "Black American Money."

(CNN) -- Let's start this conversation from the beginning: Censorship is almost always wrong. As a scholar, I can't condone the suppression of ideas, and I am typically against it. Now that I've said what I am supposed to say, let's get down to the nitty-gritty.

A segment of the scholarly community is up in arms after Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University, did the unthinkable. Gribben, in conjunction with NewSouth Books, announced plans to release another edition of the famous book "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" without the N-word, which is used 219 times in the book.

Instead, Gribben -- who is the book's editor -- and the publisher have decided to replace the N-word with the word "slave."

Let's be clear, Gribben's actions do not represent censorship, at least not in its purest form.

It's not as if Gribben is asking that all original copies of the text be burned. He is not following the lead of the Chinese government and attempting to block websites that make reference to the book. He is not requesting the complete omission or deletion of ideas shared in the book.

P.C. insult to a Mark Twain classic

He is expanding the freedom of teachers and parents to choose a version of the book that they might find more acceptable for children of a certain age.

Censoring 'Huck Finn' and 'Tom Sawyer'

The notion that any form of filtering, in any context, for any age group, is unethical is not only exceedingly idealistic, it is disconnected from reality. No matter how cherished a film or song might be, work presented to students in public school is going to be screened to determine whether it matches the age group for which the material is being presented.

Making a more appropriate version of Mark Twain's novel available to the public, while certainly a move to maximize profits, opens the door for the book to be enjoyed in schools that are not interested in traumatizing students in order to educate them.

Long before I became a scholar, I was a black teenage boy. At that time, I would never have enjoyed hearing my English teacher repeat the N-word 219 times out loud in front of a class full of white students. I also would have wondered why African-Americans are the only ethnic group forced to read "classic" literature that uses such derogatory language toward us in a disturbingly repetitive way.

I would have found such a presentation to be only a hurtful and highly inefficient way for me to understand slavery, and I probably would have been teased.

Yes, our nation needs an honest conversation on race. That conversation shouldn't start and end with "Huckleberry Finn." In fact, the urgency with which some defend the use of this book as a tool for teaching racial history reflects our desperate and unfulfilled need to address the atrocities of slavery.

Although the brilliance of the Mark Twain novel must be acknowledged, students can and should be engaged in constructive ways to learn what happened to their ancestors without being subjected to racial slurs in the process. Similar to the way it was inappropriate last year for a teacher in North Carolina to force students to re-enact slavery in a cotton field, I don't need to hear the N-word 219 times to know that it is hurtful.

After being a black teen, I became a parent, so I must make this final point:

While we may be seeking to support fundamental American freedoms by ensuring that the Mark Twain book is available in its rawest form, it is ultimately incorrect for us to simultaneously steal the freedom of parents to decide that the language of the book is not appropriate for their children.

One freedom deserves another, so the freedom of the artist to express himself/herself in an offensive way should be supplemented by our right to reject that form of expression within the confines of a public school. By creating an alternative version of this brilliant text, Gribben has opened the door for millions of children to experience the beauty of this book without the much-celebrated racial degradation. Freedom ultimately means having options.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Boyce Watkins.