If you remove uncomfortable words from literature, you remove the heart of the entire reason for their use. Mark Twain was a masterful wordsmith who chose his words carefully, and he didn’t live in a vacuum, he understood the negative charge the N-word carried, even back then. Inclusion of the dehumanizing N-word sharply contrasts the reality of who Jim actually was, a kind, caring, noble human being, of higher character than most of the self-important whites he and Huck encountered. That one despicable word spoke volumes, both about those using it, how they used it and the reason they used it, as well as how Jim reacted to the use of it during different interactions, weighted by the motives and actions of the one using that word.
Despots know, and use the brutal tactic of labelling to conquer and rule, whether thousands of years ago or today, its effectiveness hasn’t changed, it still works. In order to justify mistreatment and/or extermination of a certain group, first you must dehumanize the members of that group. How better to depict that process than to live through it with a member of a group undergoing such long-term dehumanization? There will never be only the “bad guy’s” side or the “good guy’s” side, there are two sides, both with their own perspectives, rationalizations and goals. To truly understand the entire argument, both sides and the underlying motives driving their opinions and conclusions must be presented and explored.
The emotional interplay of actors is true of all labelling of either individual persons or whole groups for the purpose of marginalization. Such labelling is in wide use today, just as it was when Huckleberry Finn was written. It’s not going away. It’s a regrettable human failing to attempt to relegate someone else to the lowly position of being less so you can assume the vaulted position of being more, at least in your own eyes and perhaps the eyes of your group. It doesn’t work, at least not for long, it never has. Yes, the popular person or group to label may change, but the poisonous spirit behind the use of labelling others is alive and well.
Outside of our homes and churches, what better place than in the school room, through the use of great literature, to educate children on both the crippling power and deadly danger of choosing to label others? What better way to teach children how unfair, demeaning and cruel it is than to have them live through it themselves through the eyes of someone experiencing dehumanization?
Bullying is an epidemic in schools. Analyzing all the harmful aspects of dehumanization by use of slurs of all kinds, and the crushing results such labelling has on its victim(s), seems a critical topic to explore in the classroom. If you care about the next generation, don’t take the expeditious and therefore cowardly way out by refusing to acknowledge such evils exist, dedicate yourself to teaching our children why something is wrong. Erasing words from a book won’t erase from any heart the poison those words reveal, only education and understanding can do that.
The world is filled with unpleasantness, injustice, evil and downright horror, we must teach our children how to counter and defend against those things, no matter what form they may take, in order to assume their rightful places as adults, unafraid of the future, no matter what they may encounter. We, those whose duty it is to prepare the next generation to take over control from us, can sleep easy, if we have done that duty to the best of our abilities. Mark Twain understood the importance of that pivotal fact. Do we?