Opinion: The n word, Twain, and a case of moral dissonance

By Toyin Agbetu | Sun 9 January 2011

Mark Twain: “I’ve never let my schooling interfere with my education”: A seemingly benign image reinforcing the malevolent doctrine of ‘white’ male supremacy from Huckleberry Finn

Toyin Agbetu explains why replacing the n word with alternatives in historical texts is problematic and why he advocates self-regulation for creating responsible, respectful literature in publishing, not censorship.

First things first, I’m not claiming that Mark Twain is a racist.

No, actually, I think I am.

But not in the KKK kind of way - not to my knowledge anyway. Before I explore this topic let me make it clear that I view Twain as no less racist than all those other non-Africans who adopt a sympathetic/arrogant paternalistic approach towards addressing African people and our concerns. Charitable maybe, but a holder of ‘white’ supremacist views – most definitely.

That out of the way, let’s begin.

The decision of an Alabama publisher to expurgation racist epithets from books by Mark Twain as a counter to “preemptive censorship” is an interesting development. The introduction to the new edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn written by Dr. Alan Gribben is wise in including the quote by the novelist and playwright, Langston Hughes where he expresses unequivocally that African people do “do not like [the n word repeated] in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic”, but Gribben’s subsequent assertion that the “synonym “slave” expresses the cultural racism that Twain sought to convey” is wholly incorrect.

The word ‘slave’ (possibly a corruption of the label ‘slav’) denotes a status used to label a person coerced into involuntary servitude. In this context it is ethnicity neutral. In contrast, the n word is a perversion of the racist epithet ‘negro’, (likely from the latin term for ‘black’), it was and is still used to denote a racist depiction of ‘black’ sub-humans with African ethnicity (see Chris Rock’s ‘[N words] v Black people’) through stripping them of their name and primary ethnic identity.

Also, replacing the n word with the label ‘slave’ is not only problematic, it’s demeaning. The correct way through the English language to restore the dignity and identity of the people being mislabelled as ‘chattel negroids’ is the term ‘enslaved Africans’. Just as the term ‘disabled person’ is not synonymous with offensive moniker, ‘spastic’, the label ‘slave’ is not comparable with the n word.

You see as a long time campaigner against usage of the n word in cultural media I should be jumping up for joy. But I’m not. Whilst it is true that the n word has no place in a civilised society, the right of the artist/writer to express themselves without censor (but with full acceptance of consequences) is a fundamental human right. In extremely rare occasions it works, in other more ‘satirical’ contexts it often fails.

Indeed, if this publishers decision was primarily motivated by a desire to prevent injury to readers (both African and otherwise) then this could at least be claimed as a laudable objective. Sadly, it is not. Instead what we are observing seems to be a thinly veiled ploy designed to increase popularity (and hence sales) by reversing the books removal from ‘curriculum lists worldwide’.

I find this as morally repugnant as the belligerent music performers who profiteer from cultural gangsterism by claiming they are just ‘keeping it real’. Twain as an author made a conscious decision to use this specific epithet, not once but numerous times within his texts. Whilst his intent is alleged to have been to improve the society that produced such a vile ideological device, it is logical to assume that he was not ignorant of the harm usage of the racist word would cause. Therefore, in using the terminology he also accepted some of the responsibility for the offence and social injustice it perpetuated. As with any injustice there are always consequences. The removal of his works from modern human rights centred curricila and progressive educational institutions were one of them. Just as I would not expect to see Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle) included as core text for a lesson on community development, I do not believe it correct to include works perpetuating racist ideology in literature classes.

Mein Kamph – A copy of this book resides in the Oxbridge university libraries - Is it an inoffensive ‘masterpiece’ of literature that should be taught in secondary schools?

Definition of a classic

Personally I never use the n word and question the moral integrity of those that do. But if the publishers want to publish a more respectful version of the books and retain the author’s literary intent in its historical context then they can replace the anti-African word with ‘[n word]’ and label the publication as a ‘young reader’s edition’.

Finally there is this facetious argument being bandied around that these books somehow represent the best in world literature - that they are in some way, classics. The rationale goes that unless publishers edit to modernise them, a generation of students will somehow lose out on great literature. I beg to differ.

This arrogant assumption based on a supremacist view of eurocentrism negates the fact there are millions of books in circulation, the majority encapsulating ideology existing outside the narrow confines of barbaric European aggression and imperialism. There is more historic value in Oladauh Equano’s Interesting Narrative than Huckleberry Finn, more accuracy in Ayi Kwei-Armah’s The Healers, more dramatic prose in Two Thousands Seasons or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a yellow Sun, a more enlightened examination of racism in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Ousmane Sembène classic God’s bits of wood than the Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Great classic texts remain relevant not only due to the way they are expressed, but also their content and how it navigates information and ideologue within a cultural context, be that historical or social. Whilst I am opposed to all usage of the racist epithet in cultural media, even good artists/writers occasionally choose to risk creating offence by exploiting explosive language for dramatic and perhaps socio-cultural educational effect (as opposed to economic benefit). Therefore when Mark Twain used the n word over two hundred times in his writings, he was in effect normalising its use, a clear case of moral dissonance.

A group think appears to have blinded fans of Twain who was in essence desensitising the term and exhibiting contemptuous views towards African people (potential readers who he did not intend to be his audience). His flagrant use of pejorative language was similar to how in a ‘blockbuster’ movie human life has little value as people are killed by a ‘hero’ without showing consequence (brilliantly parodied in the uncensored version of the film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery) as opposed to a quality film where the entire story may revolve around preventing the death or locating the killer of a single individual. But of course my views of what constitutes a quality film or movie are biased by my own personal values and interpretations of morality.

Nonetheless, usage of the n word has always been contemptuous, at worst a vehicle to degrade African people by dehumanising them, and at best an exploration or repudiation of the word and its associated cultural baggage for academic or social purposes. For those that doubt me please go into the middle of any thriving African community and start pointing at people and greeting them at random with ‘hey wassup my n word’. The consequences will be ugly, and rightly so.

Despite what non-Africans and their colluding ‘black’ people [intentionally pejorative] would like us believe, the n word is not a part of the Pan African vernacular and primarily exists in environments where the education and cultural output is controlled by non-Africans, or where ignorance (prison, pupil referral units, mens clubs, armed forces, etc) is king.

Non Africans may assume that in the privacy of our own spaces that we use this language, but the reality is that the majority of Africans that retain any sense of pride, dignity and adherence to our traditional values would never be so culturally backwards.

This is almost universally true, unless they are referring to a minority of Africans successfully miseducated by western systems of schooling, in which case they occasionally assume correctly. What did Twain himself once say - 'Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.' In the excellent book Languages of Instruction for African Emancipation eidted by Birgit Brock-Utne and Rodney Kofi Hopson it is expressed how the defacto use of European languages such as English as a language of instruction across the world has led to a ‘serious negative impact on African education and on the academic performance of African learners’.

Fortunately, the English language, like all cultural repositories exists as a living evolving entity. Every year new words are created whilst simultaneously other words fade into obscurity. As a result, the best artists/writers are those capable of using their imagination to feed into that process.

Therefore we need to ask, what is the real moral debate here? Is it one of censorship, because that is not true, the books are and will remain accessible in unedited format elsewhere. Is it simply a question about usage of offensive words in itself? If so then shouldn’t we be questioning the ease in which many works that have been labelled as ‘classic’ or ‘masterpieces’ are by authors who have felt free to perpetuate components of racist ideology without consequence?

Or perhaps, and this is one area where I sympathise, perhaps this is a question of whether racist language in historical literature should be ‘white’ washed in order to introduce the texts to new readers. I am not convinced that we should accept the sanitisation of history in order to mask racist attitudes permeating a vile ‘white’ supremacist ideological ecosystem that continues to exist. The preservation of racist historical dialogue should not mean the repetition or perpetuation of it.

I was recently speaking with a school teacher on this matter and she explained her experiences when reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men with students. First they had to be prepared for the intensity of the language that was to come, second they had do discuss the book in its context as a piece of social literature, Steinbeck’s intent she argues, was clearly to condemn racist attitudes, to expose the ease with which protagonists used the n word as a tool of violence - not serve as a journal for rites of passage as Twain’s works do.

But in instances of gratuitous offence - even in recordings of historical dialogue, I deliberately choose to use the word violence to describe the impact of the offence. In his book Violation, author Spartacus R defines any act of violation be it physical or non-physical as violence. I agree. As such, if and that is a big if, I was to ever see reason to deliberately expose my children to samples of violating texts, then it would be in a controlled environment on the basis of educating them to realise the presence and subsequent defence of the n word remains a practical marker, a useful barometer to the level of anti-African attitudes that still exists within society, irrespective of when, where and by whom it is used.

The ‘n word’ as a term is a fairly recent construct and yet it enables me to write this article about the topic without once having to use the nefarious term in question or defile myself by giving it cultural energy. Intelligence is no substitute for imagination, just as a perceived right to make the works of certain authors sacrosanct is no excuse for the literary violence of perpetuating anti-African racism.

Regardless of in the hands of teachers or lawyers, elders or children, words have the power to educationally liberate or oppressively subjugate, to socio-politically empower or to culturally and ideologically defecate. All those that repudiate this fact claiming ‘they’re only words’ are ignoramuses living in denial. In which case they won’t be able to comprehend or willing to release their own potential ability to understand what it is they’ve just read.

Now f*** off.

Toyin Agbetu is a writer, film director, poet, and founder of Ligali.

Classic Literature: God’s Bits of Wood, The Healers, Half of a Yellow Sun, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, African World Revolution, Speaking Truth to Power, The Destruction of Black Civilisation, Things Fall Apart

External Links
introduction to Mark Twains books - The NewSouth edition
Etymology of the n word
Jonathan McCoy:,11 on stop using the n word
Def Poetry - Julian Curry
Do Word Changes Alter Huckleberry Finn - The Words of Pap Finns Rant

Ligali is not responsible for the content of third party sites

Dear Diary: The journey of a complaint about the n word
Intent, consent and the panto season of racist jokes

Speak Out!

Twain himself is said to have defined a ‘classic’ as “a book which people praise and don’t read”. Should we simply not read his works and explore better books?
Click here to speak out or read (1) comments about this article
The presence and subsequence defence of the n word remains a practical marker, a useful barometer to the level of anti-African attitudes that still exists within society

Toyin Agbetu, The Ligali Organisation

See Related:

words hurt

Sticks and stones will break your bones
if you use them to oppress me
i will not turn the other cheek
or sing we shall overcome
as you load those literary bullets
into that vile racist vocal gun

sticks and stones will break your bones
if you use your words to disrespect me
if my African identity you cannot respect
and forever in your eyes i’m some kind of suspect
as your laws and justice fails to protect
and my community
when instead of African you label me coloured, negro, black
telling me chill bro chill you aint under attack
you’ve been had
its just political correctness gone mad,
my... my...
n word
well then my sticks and stones will break your bones
till your words never again can ever hurt me.

Taken from the book Revoetry: Poems from an African British Perspective

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