Since when did the word ‘slave’ become equivalent in meaning, historical connotation, and impact to the word ‘nigger’?
There is no historical, specific implication behind the world ‘slave’ and to whom it refers to. A slave could have existed at any point throughout world history, been Egyptian, Polish, or Asian, or of any race or hue.
Niggers were African-American chattel: teased and raped, spat upon and whipped, shackled and chained, and, oftentimes, treated no more human than filthy vermin found hiding and scurrying ’round the master’s house.
Don’t get me wrong: ‘slave’ is bad, but ‘nigger’ is far worse. ‘Slave’ and ‘nigger’ are incomparable in meaning and impact by all stretches.
As a concerned high school history teacher, our secondary education American history curriculum is in crisis–it has become further removed from the truth than ever before, and a professor and small publishing company of my home state, Alabama, isn’t helping.
Eyes widened and jaws collided with the floor over Mark Twain scholar and editor of NewSouth Books, Inc. Alan Gribben’s well-intentioned plan to publish a new edition of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The new edition trades the word ‘nigger’ for the word ‘slave’ in the name of children nationwide and the increasing inaccessibility and repudiation of the text.
Perhaps, some teachers find teaching significantly painful history, like ‘Huck Finn’, challenging to explain and navigate. Perhaps, children do find historic institutions, like the horrors of slavery, actually ‘unpleasant’. Perhaps, every child in America will read the revised text, and perhaps we will discover fresh life lessons in these ‘new’ adventures of ‘Huck Finn’.
This may be true. This may be conveniently comforting. There may be worthwhile teachable moments.
But, at what costs and to what end?
Educated as a black youth in a segregated Alabama, I am no fan of any semblance of the protean N-word; however, excising ‘nigger’ from ‘Huck Finn’ allows for us to duck essential conversations about history that we must all have, especially with children. An edited version allows for children to move forward in comfortable darkness with no gauge of how horrendous our country once was and treated fellow Americans. Worse, it rebuffs rightful celebration of how much collective progress we’ve made as a nation. If there is anything our country has always prided itself on, it has always been our ability to weather the toughest of obstacles as a collective people and to be more united and improved thereafter.
As a corps member of Teach for America, I landed a teaching post at a 99 percent black, college preparatory, all-boys’ high school in Philadelphia, PA. Would it surprise readers if I stated that I hear euphemisms of ‘nigger’ more than 200 times bi-weekly? While my students understand that the word is the atomic bomb of racial slurs in its historical context, their generation lives in an era of “Snoop Dog”, “Eminem”, and “Lil’ Wayne”, an age where euphemisms of ‘nigger’ thrive in popular culture as endearing sentiments without regard to historical and cultural context. So, while I understand appropriate discomfort with the slur, I wonder what American children are traumatized by the word ‘nigger’? On the first day of school, I self-committed that I would sensitively and carefully teach history accurately, not watered-down versions that make me or my students feel good. The charge to teach truth lies in teachers.
History should be provocative. And yes, our past does have some disgusting moments. In my classroom, I tell my students that it’s appropriate to feel discomfort given the subject. The era of slavery was not a comfortable period for African-Americans centuries ago, and, rightfully, I do not expect my students to reflect on slavery without some apprehension today. The justice of today is reciprocal with the honesty of yesterday. If we fail to discuss and stomach the embarrassments of our past, then we will never overcome the many injustices that continue to plague our country in the future. That’s why we continue to struggle with race relations today. Without facing our past and discussing it openly, there will be no progress. Accurate history affords us mobility.
Authoring a novel is a painstakingly meticulous process: Mr. Twain authored his works, as any artist, exactly as he intended. Mr. Twain choose to use ‘nigger’ 219 times for a reason, and that’s to reproduce the severity of the harm that racism does in America and to illustrate the American lexicon of the 19th century, not because he was racist and pro-slavery, because he was neither.
Yesterday, it was the decision to ignore the histories and near genocide of the indigenous populations of the Americas, peddling that Christopher Columbus, the greatest mass murderer of collective world history, is some courageous explorer, and so much so that he deserves his own American holiday like Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, it is the efforts to diminish the turpitude of the Old South’s past enslavement and subjugation of African-Americans by NewSouth, seemingly ironic in the convenient name of the publisher and the history in which it is attempting to whitewash. Tomorrow, who knows where it will end?
Only history knows.