In a seventh grade English class at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic School in Port Charlotte, Florida, the teacher was presenting Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer,” using an uncensored version, which is to say, “Tom Sawyer.” The classic novel, like its larger, more ambitious cousin “Huckleberry Finn,” uses the now taboo “n-word” in a society today that should be too sophisticated and wise by now not to know that declaring words taboo is ethically and intellectually indefensible. One African-American community website’s news report on the incident states, “Anyone who has read an unedited version of those books know how racially insensitive they were.” Well:
- Any one who has only read an “unedited”, meaning bowldlerized, version of “Tom Sawyer” hasn’t read “Tom Sawyer,” and
- Great literature isn’t supposed to be “racially sensitive”; it’s supposed to be enlightening.
- The issue of watering down language that some may find offensive in literature is well-considered in this essay.
As described in the letter above, when members of the class read the book out loud and the word “nigger” was uttered, the students began “acting up,” laughing, making comments, and generally acting like undisciplined 7th graders, which they were. When the teacher could not calm them down, she improvised a creative but risky solution: having the children repeat the word over and over again. The idea, obviously (though not sufficiently obvious for any of the media reports to figure out) was to rob the “taboo” word of power by repetition. It’s an old linguistic trick that kids should be familiar with (i know I was): when any word is repeated enough, it becomes just a sound, which is all any word is. (This device becomes the climax of the excellent horror film “Pontypool,” in which something causes the English language to become deadly, destroying everyone’s brains.) Continue reading