Censorship of a “Trashy and Vicious” Novel
Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a beloved American novel, was nonetheless controversial from the start, called out early for its low morals and later drawing disapproval for racist language and its caricatured portrayal of the escaped slave Jim. The book’s notoriety launches our exploration of the intersection of race and culture, from Randall Kennedy’s Ni---r: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word to Ralph Ellison, the rap group N.W.A and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
One of the most charming qualities of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is its first-person narration. Huck’s is an unforgettable voice, beginning with the opening lines: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.” Shortly after its publication, Huckleberry Finn was the subject of a newspaper article, headlined “Trashy and Vicious,” that commended libraries for banning the novel; vernacular language like Huck’s was considered unfit to print—and evidence of Twain’s low “moral level” and lack of a “reliable sense of propriety.”
Over the years, anger about the vernacular speech faded—later literary scholars praised Huckleberry Finn for liberating writers from the constraints of genteel English—but the novel is still embroiled in controversy. Often read in schools, it is also frequently banned for its racist language. Yet when a 2011 edition attempted to solve the problem by replacing the 200-plus instances of the N word with the word slave, the book's advocates decried the modifications and essentially urged a ban on the censored edition.
In Ni---r: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy deconstructs the myriad uses, abuses and effects of the word in American culture, past and present. In the book’s introduction Kennedy notes that as an African American he has had to deal with the word throughout his life. His chronicle of the multifaceted term is a thorough examination of the power that a “mere word” can have.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a story about a young white boy who helps an escaped slave seek his freedom. The novel has always been a lightning rod for debates around the N word, which the book uses more than 200 times. Kennedy takes to task critics of Huckleberry Finn’s racist language, arguing that Twain’s intention is “not branding blacks, but rather branding the whites” who employ it so casually. Kennedy believes Twain meant to shine a light on the social acceptance of the word at that time, even by a victim and perpetrator who have affection for one another and are otherwise moral and likable human beings. Huck’s casual use of the pejorative term, Kennedy insists, is intended “to subvert, not to reinforce, racism.”
Huck introduces Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as “Miss Watson’s big ni---r.” The term’s offensiveness is tempered by the relationship that develops when Huck decides to help Jim escape from slavery and comes to realize the man’s humanity. “He hadn’t ever been away from home before in his life,” Huck says, ”and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.”
Mark Twain wrote that he based Jim on “Uncle Dan’l,” a slave he knew as a child, “whose sympathies were wide and warm and whose heart was honest and simple and knew no guile.” While Twain paints Jim in the broad strokes of caricature—superstitious and simple-minded, deferential to the white boy—he also creates an earnest and sympathetic figure. Jim’s freedom is emotionally gratifying, representing as it does American society’s liberation from slavery. For the modern reader, however, Jim’s obsequious appreciation—“I’s a free man, en I couldn’t ever ben free ef it hadn’ ben for Huck.… Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had”—underscores the patriarchal attitude of even an abolitionist like Twain.
Few African American literary characters are as confounding as Jim, the runaway slave and traveling companion of the young protagonist in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Over time, Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man (1952) and other writings about black identity, changed his opinion of the character, who plays an important role in discussions of race in American literature. In his first published writings on Huckleberry Finn in the 1930s, Ellison considers Jim’s portrayal authentic and realistic, a departure from the “idealized” slave figure common to the fiction of the time. He commends Twain for using a slave as a “symbol of humanity,” a man whose freedom represents American society’s liberation from the oppressive system of slavery itself. (It’s surprising that Ellison refers to him as Ni---r Jim, a moniker that doesn’t appear in the book. Ernest Hemingway employed the label too, in his 1935 book Green Hills of Africa.) By the 1950s Ellison’s opinion had shifted; he wrote that Jim is too close to the minstrel tradition of broadly drawn patsies in blackface, remarking that he presumed Twain had not counted African Americans in his intended audience for the book.
Ralph Ellison, one of the most important 20th-century American authors, wrote, “It takes fortitude to be a man, and no less to be an artist. Perhaps it takes even more if the black man would be an artist.” The statement may serve as a quick summary of Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952), which digs deep into troubling issues of African American identity. In the opening pages, the narrator describes viciously attacking a stranger who, passing him in darkness and seemingly not recognizing him as a person, called him “an insulting name.”
Randall Kennedy alludes to this scene in Ni---r: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word and assumes what that “insulting name” is. He touches on Ellison’s scenario in a chapter that lays out a history of court cases in which such uses of the word have provoked violence. Kennedy highlights the word’s appearance in thousands of court documents, far more than any other racial slur. This dubious history, which helps perpetuate the stigma and complexity of the word’s usage, leads Kennedy to question the “mere words” doctrine of the justice system, which states that a defendant cannot claim words alone as justification for a crime.
In his book on the N word, Randall Kennedy provides several perspectives on African Americans’ calling each other by it. Rappers, he explains, use it partly to “rope off cultural turf” in response to a long history of white musicians’ profiting from the innovations of black musicians. Used as a protective measure, the word in this sense wields a significance outsiders can’t commandeer. Kennedy also aligns the usage with the expropriation of hateful words by other marginalized groups (as gays have done with queer), which “throw[s] the slur right back in the oppressors’ faces.”
The hard-core rap group N.W.A—Ni---z Wit Attitudes—flaunted such practices. The ensemble, including future stars Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, set out to establish the reputation its name suggests. N.W.A’s 1988 album Straight Outta Compton came with a healthy amount of controversy; not least was the unabashed use of the N word. Ice Cube described the style of music, which depicts the rough life of young urban African Americans, as “reality rap” rather than gangster rap, as many in the media labeled it. The songs grabbed headlines and found increasing appeal among white American teens, and N.W.A indeed threw the slur back at the “oppressors.”
The name says it all: N.W.A (Ni---z Wit Attitudes) was destined to provoke. Young black males struggling to survive in urban Southern California in the late 1980s, the group almost didn’t include the track “Fuck tha Police” on its first studio album, Straight Outta Compton. The decision to add the protest song came after band members Dr. Dre and Eazy-E had a frustrating experience with the police. The song struck a chord with African Americans who felt unfairly targeted by law enforcement.
The FBI sent N.W.A a letter expressing its displeasure and accusing the group of encouraging violence. The tour promoting the album drew numerous police protests, and the group was banned from many cities. In Detroit a sizable force of officers rushed the stage when Ice Cube performed the ominous first words, which repeat the song’s title. Though the song was widely banned from radio play, the album tallied millions of dollars in sales. The bans and protests led to media attention, support from such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union and discussion about congressional action to ban the album. N.W.A ignited music censorship issues that continued to burn throughout the 1990s.
The hero of Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 homage to the spaghetti Western, is a recently liberated slave (Jamie Foxx) on a quest to free his wife. The movie generated controversy for its copious use of the N word, which occurs about half as many times as it does in Huckleberry Finn. African American film director Spike Lee has pledged to boycott Django out of respect for his own ancestry, stating, “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. It was a holocaust.” Tarantino’s appropriation of the word has raised Lee’s ire for years, as law professor Randall Kennedy discusses in Ni---r: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. Lee maintains Tarantino has no right to use it because he is white. Kennedy, who is African American, takes Tarantino’s side, asserting that white artists should be able to use the word for the sake of “enlarging the common ground of American culture,” but he admits the complexion of the word changes based on the user’s race. In his book, published in 2002, Kennedy classifies Lee’s criticisms of Tarantino as “almost wholly ad hominem,” focused on Tarantino’s race, not his work. Of course, Kennedy hadn’t yet seen Django.