Friday, January 7, 2011

Then You Are Not


2011 is turning out to be a big year for Mark Twain. Go into any bookstore and you'll see his telephone book sized autobiography for sale. Twain cleverly left notice that it was not to be published until well after he and anyone mentioned were no longer around. It's not surprising that someone as perceptive as Mark Twain would take great care to insure that the truth would hold sway over anyone's attempt to alter anything he might have wanted us to know.
So it is with equal fascination that Twain's work has again come under scrutiny and truth is on trial. This week, New South Publishing announced a new version of Huck Finn which replaces the n word with slave. Some see no difference. I get that, but I beg to differ. School boards have already tried to censor writers who use the n word in historical context. Richard Wright's Native Son comes to mind. Is this being too PC. Are we that sensitive that we can't handle the truth?
I argue that we can have it both ways. No, I'm not referring to changing anything. We can (and should) avoid censoring or changing great literature while still being able to handle the context and time crucial to its understanding.
Is it a supreme irony that the U.S. Congress this week in it's opening session tried to censor the reading of the Constitution? The timing couldn't have been more perfect. How long before it takes that the majority of citizens are unaware of the 3/5 clause, relating to African Americans held as slaves, or the precise wording about who is and is not a citizen of this country. These are not minor issues. How long before someone decides that another novel needs word substitutions? Will that slope be sufficiently slippery to glide on over to history books. After all, gas chambers for human beings do not conjure up pleasant thoughts.
We really ought t protect ourselves from ourselves on these matters.
I would be the first one to line up in support of the power of the written word. Language matters, words do hurt. Read Toni Morrison on the power of language if you need a refresher course. But censorship hurts just as bad, and it comes in various disguises.

James Baldwin once said, "If I am not who you think I am, then you are not who you think you are."
Wonder what Mark Twain would say about that?

1 comment:

Cameron McPherson Smith said...

"Are we that sensitive that we can't handle the truth?"

I think we are, Bruce. We love war movies of astounding bloodiness, but we don't want to see even coffins coming back from The Wars. The other day a news story said that in Iran a man was publically hanged. I was shocked and horrified. Then I thought, if you are going to kill people as punishment--and we do in this country--then why shouldn't it be on public display so that people can witness it and, thereby, think about it in a significant way?