I would preface this rant grenade with the caveat of: If you’re offended by the n-word, then this post is not for you… but I won’t. I think that’s part of the problem. That brings me to Nigger Jim.
For Mark Twain’s part, he effectively showed the irreconciliable irony of slavery in what was supposed to be a civilized society. For Nigger Jim’s part, it’s not like he had a choice in the name any more than Kunta did when he warred againt the handle “Toby”.
“Oh, but wait,” cries a more modern, more civilized society than the civilized society Twain mocked when he wrote Huck Finn. “That word is offensive. We can change it to ‘slave’ and in doing so enjoy the literature masterpiece that Twain wrote. But we can’t in its present form, for it offends us.”
Tough. Be offended.
You can’t simultaenously call a book a “masterpiece” and then try to change it. It’s a masterpiece. That’s like adding cowbell to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Seriously, if you can do that, then I’m really salty that academics are hard at work on Huck 2.0 when there’s a few elephants in the room. Birth of a Nation, anyone? Do you know this shit movie is still touted as a “masterpiece” of cinema?! I don’t see anyone in Hollywood casting for Rebirth of a Nation… guess it’s easier to make an example out of a kid on a raft and a runaway slave.
Besides, diluting the word isn’t a solution to the problem, anymore than calling a homeless man a “loveable tramp” makes him any less homeless.
Twain didn’t invent the word. He didn’t take a word that used to be harmless and make it derogatory. He took an already hateful word and used it in a way that was common in his day. If nothing else, that makes his work even more compelling today and in the future… it’s a time capsule, a glimpse through a window to the past. Maybe looking at an American past without varnish makes some uncomfortable… get over it. Sometimes life isn’t about comfort. Hell, even in the days that Twain wrote it, he didn’t write it so the reading public could take comfort in it.
So for those of you who read about Nigger Jim and squirm uncomfortably… good on ya. You’re supposed to. If you think it’s uncomfortable reading about Nigger Jim, imagine what it was like to be Nigger Jim. The last thing we need is for you all to go through life thinking that slavery was just one wacky misadventure after another until the fraptious day of emancipation.
And for those of you who aren’t uncomfortable… y’all are probably the ones still cheering Birth of a Nation praises. And reading this post aloud to coworkers just so you can have an excuse to drop n-bombs like it’s D-Day.