The recent news about an upcoming edition of Huckleberry Finn scrubbed of the word "nigger" sparked discussions all over. I participated in the discussion at Ta-nehisi Coates's blog, (read the comments here -- they are much better than the original post).
At first I was tentatively in favor of the existence of such a thing, on the theory that so many students are deprived of the novel because the schools won't use it, maybe it would be better for them to get an abridged choice than none at all; and also because maybe it would be a more appropriate choice for very young kids, and parents might prefer that.. I retreated from that position some as the discussion went on, though. If it is necessary, I guess it's of the necessary-evil sort.
Either way, I disagree that the idea is stupid or evil or even "a ridiculous bit of political correctness." I think we can assume good intentions on the part of the redactors. Look: It's a problem when possibly the single most important American novel can't be used in many schools because of policies governing its vocabulary. I also think it's fair to take people at their word who are made uncomfortable by the word "nigger" in Huck Finn -- people of all colors. Publishing a redacted version probably will get a form of the book into more classrooms, and may help some students read it who might reject it otherwise.
Is that better than fewer classrooms reading the real book? I am not at all sure. I'm a homeschooler who loves old books, and consequently I redact all the time while reading aloud. Most of the words I have to remove, however, are there because of the author's blind spots. In HF, "nigger" is there because of the author's clear sight. It's an artifact of its time and it is absolutely central to a complete understanding of the book. We are still grappling with it BECAUSE of what it means in HF. It's not incidental to its position in the canon of American literature.
Some people wrote that if a child is too young to be exposed to the "offensive language" in HF, then they are too young for HF. I am sympathetic to this argument to a point. Obviously the entire power of the book is not going to be absorbed by young children, but that's not an argument against using it early. I think the book might best be encountered twice: once for the adventure story, later for the social criticism (strengthened by a love for the adventure story). But if you're going to do it that way, I think it'sreasonable for the teaching parent to introduce the book in redacted and possibly abridged form. We know our own kids.
I told a story in the discussion at TNC's blog:
I am a homeschooling parent. My oldest is ten. We are white (which is relevant).
Last year, I covered 19th-century U.S. History, with lots of focus on the Civil War, mostly using literature. One thing we did was study the writings of W.E.B. du Bois and Booker T. Washington in order to see the differences between their philosophies. I let the kids (my son and a friend his age) discover the similarities and differences themselves, though I had to select the text excerpts of course.
Anyway, I was pleased with what they learned, except for one thing. Afterward I had to aggressively train my son, who kept forgetting, in the fact that he can't walk around referring to people as "Negroes" or "colored." (as in: "Mom, I met a new friend at the Y today. Did you see him? It was that Negro boy with the blue shirt.") He just hadn't had any occasion to hear the words yet.
SO. Coming around to Huck Finn. It's a great, great book, and it's a travesty that, if you are committed to using it exactly as it was written, you have to be EXTREMELY careful if you use it with children or else delay using it till high school. I was worried enough about my son innocently referring to another child as "Negro" because I didn't foresee him taking it in as ordinary vocabulary. I'm not about to expose him to "nigger" unless he's reached an age where I can be confident he can understand that it is not ordinary vocabulary.
My friends who have read Huck Finn aloud to their elementary-school children have *all* bowdlerized it in the reading aloud, usually replacing "nigger" with "slave." It is a wonderful adventure story with much to teach middle-school kids, but I think it's reasonable for parents to choose not to burden YOUNGER children with the vocabulary of ethnic slurs.
Some people are framing this as a matter of delicate sensibilities; me, I don't want MY kid to accidentally hurt someone ELSE's feelings. I'd rather he not hear and possibly become desensitized to "nigger" until he's old enough to have a frank discussion about it.
Discussion (and it's really great discussion, thought provoking) continued in the comments thread at this post here. I came away from it feeling a little bit more confident about being able to overcome the language problem I described above.
But I felt that it really culminated today: This writer tells how he shared the book with his own children. I think he's answered my question for how to deal with it. What do you think about his approach?