Monday, January 3, 2011

Readers who are Mother Load fans over on Facebook will likely recall a fairly impassioned status update I posted last month involving a quote I had seen erroneously attributed to Mark Twain.  The quote was as follows: "Sing like no one's listening. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching. Live like it's Heaven on Earth."  In my status, I rightly stated that anyone who had read even a paragraph of Twain would know he never said this.

Unfortunately for our country today, the vast majority of people have spent more time reading false Twain quotes on crowd sourced websites than the words of the actual author.  This is true, in part, because teachers and school boards in this country have taken it upon themselves to decide that historical accuracy is not as large a priority as political correctness, and Twain's works have been banned from schools for his use of the "N" word.

Before we go further, here's what you need to know about me.  I do not ever use the "N" word.  I was not ever allowed to use this word as a child.  Had I used this word in my mother's presence, the red imprint of her hand across my face would still be seen in my picture above.  I am no fan of this racial epithet, and I think people who use it are either patently despicable or sadly ignorant.

So when I encountered the uses of this word in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I did not immediately tear the book to shreds, either literally or figuratively.  I saw the word for what it was: one spoken by characters, either despicable or ignorant, and an attempt by Twain to paint not only an accurate picture of the Antebellum South, but a scathing indictment of its ignorance and bigotry.

I came to these conclusions, in part, with the help of amazing teachers who guided thoughtful and mature discussions about Twain's use of the word.  I remember feeling very confident the days we studied this book, assured in the knowledge that my teacher trusted me to be thoughtful and mature.  That trust created in me, and in my fellow students, the desire to live up to it.  Simply stated, in the face of the "N" word, we handled ourselves because we were expected to handle ourselves.

Oh, the good old days, right?  People, they are gone.  A so-called "Twain scholar" and a publisher have teamed up to produce PC versions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, eradicating all uses of the "N" word and replacing them with the much more nanny state friendly "slave."  The professor leading the charge on this states that teachers wish they could teach the books but don't feel they can in this day and age, and his books provide a way to get the works back into classrooms.

The problem is, of course, that none of the schools that purchase these watered-down books will be teaching Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer.  They will be approximations only, satires that no longer dig deeply enough into their subjects to be meaningful or real. These versions of the books might as well be served up in the school cafeteria next to the processed lumps of mechanically separated chicken nuggets school officials call food.

The professor, Alan Gribben, is quoted as saying this about the "N" word itself: "My mother said it's only useful to identify [those who use it as] the wrong kind of people."  The fact that he can say this and not see Twain's intentional decision to use the word as a way of holding up the "wrong kind of people" to public scrutiny and ridicule is amazing to me. 

My apologies to anyone who wishes this were otherwise, but Twain wasn't writing about rainbows and unicorns.  He was providing social commentary on the darker side of the land of his childhood, and in so doing, he influenced generations of readers.  Take away his words, any of them, and we might as well be left with the fictional Mark Twain of the internet, the one who supposedly dances like nobody's watching.