Jessica Sieff: Leave the work of Twain alone

Published 10:38 pm Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Before I start this column — a clarification.

I don’t believe in any way, shape or form that we were put on this earth to regard anyone of any race, religion or creed any way other than: same. Racism and hatred is not just wrong, it is an unfortunate hybrid of cowardice and ignorance and fear and its origins has lead to unsightly scars on the skin of society in the form of slavery, holocaust and genocide.

I say this because I’m about to defend the work of Mark Twain, which throughout its pages includes frequent use of the n-word and which has come under recent scrutiny as one publisher has decided to omit the word completely and replace it with “slave.”

Debate surrounding the word itself has always existed. More recently, some very popular entertainers have spoken out after coming under fire for the use of it on their rap or hip-hop albums where it’s often heard. Oprah. There is the opinion by some in regard to its use in such music or among other African Americans, the word has transcended its pain. It’s become to some, a term of notability or recognition.

Again — let me clarify — those are “some” opinions that I have read. Not mine. I make no attempt to assume what it must feel like to be African-American and hear that word in any context. I’m a Caucasian-Jewish girl with Irish/French-Canadian and Arab heritage, for crying out loud. Figure that one out.Technically I’m at war with myself. I joke. Anyhow…

I end discussing the debate over the word itself at that. Because that is not really what this is all about.

What this is about is taking a piece of imperative literature and desecrating it because we think that will make life easier on us somehow. A highly regarded piece of fiction, “Huckleberry Finn” is actually all about the overwhelming wrongs of slavery, the hero of which is a young boy who’d rather risk himself than his friend sent back to slavery.

I never took real easy to Twain. I’m not a riverboat kind of gal and quite frankly his lavish adventures of rambunctious little kids annoyed me when I was young and trying to make it through “Huckleberry Finn.”

It wasn’t until I was older and reread his work that I realized what Twain did was not just write humorously and truthfully of his era. He was not merely a legendary storyteller. He was the epitome of a storyteller. Because the stories he told were rooted in the realities of the time and what Twain did was hold up a brutally honest mirror to those who thought nothing of looking down at another human being and of considering them less than themselves simply because of skin color.

In all honesty, it was not “Huckleberry Finn” that opened my mind about Twain. It was “Pudd’nhead Wilson” a story about a quirky investigative lawyer in a deep south town which centers around a slave by the name of Roxy, so afraid her child, who could pass for white, would be sold down the river into slavery that she switches her son with that of her white master. The two are raised contradictory to what they were destined for. In the book, nature succumbs to nurture and both boys are left with bleak futures in the end.

I remember when reading the story how it struck me that in our greatest efforts to deny who we are, even when we think it means avoiding a horrible fate, we are left far more bound by our mistakes and our offenses than we could have ever imagined.

To alter Twain’s work would be a desecration to literature and its purpose. I’d rather teach my children about the ills of racism and hatred through “Huckleberry Finn” than to pretend it never happened at all. If there is a concern over whether or not it’s hard for teachers to teach the material to students with the word included in its pages then I suggest we find better teachers.

There are many pieces of literature, artworks and even compositions, which stem from such dark histories of hate. They serve as a symbol of what was. In some cases, a reminder of what we should never have to live through again. You can’t explain their horror of something like slavery and its impact on an entire civilization if you just pretend it wasn’t quite as pestilent as it was.

We are an imperfect species, we human beings. We have been known to hate one another so much and on so large a scale that we murder families. Generations. We change a people’s place in the world forever. Impact them indefinitely. It is through the voices of those like Twain, who use their vocation as a mirror that we see the truth. That we fear not to change it. That we can open the door to, if not full forgiveness, healing.

That’s the thing about history. We can move on from it. To forget all about it is really quite useless. Because history is undeniable.

Jessica Sieff is a reporter for Leader Publications. Reach her at