Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Whitewashing of Mark Twain

The most appalling tidbit in this story about an English professor who has redacted the word "nigger" from Mark Twain's novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is not the preciously childlike logic motivating his actions, thoroughly childlike though it is. The professor, one Alan Gribben of Auburn University, Montgomery--more thoughts on the Auburn connection anon--said that he felt that the more polite term "slave" should be put in "nigger"s stead, in part, because he was approached by a number of local teachers who said they would love to teach the book, but can't because "in the new classroom, it's not really acceptable." No, what is truly, deeply appalling, even beyond this triumph of bowdlerizing stupidity is that Gribben actually justifies his decision in the wake of critical e-mails he has received. "None of them mentions the word. They dance around it," he says, and one can hear a certain tone of schoolmarmish pride.

At the Billy Rubin Blog, while we unquestionably react viscerally and angrily to the casual use of such words, we do not shy away from mentioning words that have real power to broadly offend in American society (of which we would only list two: the aforementioned "nigger," and "cunt") simply because such words are deemed impolite.

[A digression: "bitch" used to be in this category but has attained a certain level of acceptability, with restrictions: noting that you've had a "bitch of a day" in polite chit-chat with colleagues won't raise eyebrows, but referring to one of the female SCOTUS Justices as a "bitch" certainly would. And obviously people immediately think of various words that in part helped launch the career of comedian George Carlin--"shit," "fuck," "motherfucker," "twat," "cocksucker," et cetera--words which might induce a scowl by others at work or play for their overall  rudeness, but have basically become accepted at all but the most austere gatherings of the D.A.R. or Focus On The Family. Indeed, some of Carlin's words that couldn't be mentioned on television in 1978 are considered fully acceptable, if perhaps vaguely crude: "piss," "turd," and "fart" (this being a favorite word of Benjamin Franklin's...Billy delights in having selected writings of Franklin sit in his bathroom with the large title "FART PROUDLY!" referring to an essay of the same name). Such words, while having perhaps the power to titillate, almost never except in the most tight-wadded communities have the power to immediately and thoroughly offend. "Nigger" and "cunt," however, maintain an absolutely-out-of-bounds status in more social situations than any other words currently in use in the US. And we are, of course, ignoring the fascinating-but-complicated appropriation of the word "nigger" by African-Americans themselves. Suffice it to say that no sane white person would utter the word except among like-minded racists.]

Professor Gribben's exultation of prissiness (and the similarly comic reactions of at least some mainstream media outlets such as USA Today, who refused to actually write the word "nigger" since their policy prohibits it, admirable though such misguided intentions are) ironically misinterprets Twain in more than one way. The clear error, as explained by Jonathan Turley, who delicately tries to avoid the direct use of the word himself, invokes the notion that "to truly appreciate great works of fiction, such books must be read with an understanding of the mores and lexicon of its time." (The blog can safely assume that the Billy Rubin Blog concurring with such a site is rare if not unprecedented--merely decries the nonsense but doesn't bother to take the time to argue the point since it seems obviously ludicrous, an attitude toward which I am not entirely unsympathetic.) That said, Gribben's logic is not merely embarrassing because it fig-leafs Twain's equivalent of David (though my favorite has always been Pudd'nhead Wilson), but because it seems to operate on the logic that since Twain's work is great, Twain therefore is a Great American, and Great Americans by definition could not have possibly meant to use "nigger" the way most white people actually meant "nigger" until only 20 years ago, and it goes without saying, still used as the butt of jokes in a good many social circles, though much more discreetly.

But the reality is a good deal more complicated, and Gribben's attempt to anoint Twain as saintlike in his pursuit of racial equality ignores the fact of Twain's actual, explicit racism, and astonishingly manages to undervalue his incredible contributions to the American discussion about race (at least from this white Jewish kid's late-20th century perspective). Take, for example, Twain's love of the minstrel show, which without question would make Gribben blush himself into oblivion: "If I could have the nigger show back again in its pristine purity and perfection I should have but little further use for opera," he waxed nostalgic in his Autobiography published in 1906 [my emphasis]. How does Whitewasher-In-Chief, Professor Gribben account for such an unguarded and honest remark from his hero? Could the autoclaved Twain ever have uttered such ugliness?

Illustrating Twain's contradictions, though, should never be used to create the shibboleth that Twain was just another white racist who used the word "nigger" without care or concern for the people it referred to or those who used it. Twain unequivocally maintained a palpable disgust at slavery and the inequalities between whites and blacks, and did so quite vocally throughout his adult life. If one can read Pudd'nhead Wilson and not feel the rage against racism fly off page after every page, then one perhaps belongs in Professor Gribben's little Sam Clemens picnic of decorum, where the finer aspects of human cruelty are swept under the rug in the attempt to tell comforting bedtime stories, where nobody curses and all are treated with respect.

The actual Mark Twain, though, wrote about the real world, and he unleashed his vehemence at the peculiar racial injustices of America over the course of decades. Before he became the affable, wry man as portrayed by Hal Holbrook--Mark Twain! Utterer of Witticisms! Large Mustache and Pre-Einstein Hair!--he was a guy willing to skewer existing attitudes at great personal risk. The following is an essay that Twain wrote while living in Buffalo entitled Only A Nigger, commenting with acidity in the newspaper The Buffalo Express (of which Twain was part owner) on the lynching of an innocent man in 1869, and deliberately emphasizing the word "nigger" by putting it in quotation marks. Twain himself calls deliberate attention to the word--it's no accident! How would Professor Gribben even begin to try to teach this essay to his innocents, sunk as it is in the mire of foul language?

A dispatch from Memphis mentions that, of two negroes lately sentenced to death for murder inthat vicinity, one named Woods has just confessed to having ravished a young lady during the war, for which deed another negro was hung at the time by an avenging mob, the evidence that doomed the guiltless wretch being a hat which Woods now relates that he stole from its owner
and left behind, for the purpose of misleading.

Ah, well! Too bad, to be sure! A little blunder in the administration of justice by Southern mob-law; but nothing to speak of.

Only "a nigger" killed by mistake -- that is all. Of course, every high toned gentleman whose chivalric impulses were so unfortunately misled in this affair, by the cunning of the miscreant Woods, is as sorry about it as a high toned gentleman can be expected to be sorry about the unlucky fate of "a nigger." But mistakes will happen, even in the conduct of the best regulated and most high toned mobs, and surely there is no good reason why Southern gentlemen should worry themselves with useless regrets, so long as only an innocent "nigger" is hanged, or roasted or knouted to death, now and then. What if the blunder of lynching the wrong man does happen once in four or five cases! Is that any fair argument against the cultivation and indulgence of those fine chivalric passions and that noble Southern spirit which will not brook the slow and cold formalities of regular law, when outraged white womanhood appeals for vengeance? Perish the thought so unworthy of a Southern soul! Leave it to the sentimentalism and humanitarianism of a cold-blooded Yankee civilization! What are the lives of a few "niggers" in comparison with the preservation of the impetuous instincts of a proud and fiery race? Keep ready the halter, therefore, oh chivalry of Memphis! Keep the lash knotted; keep the brand and the faggots in waiting, for prompt work with the next "nigger" who may be suspected of any damnable crime! Wreak a swift vengeance upon
him, for the satisfaction of the noble impulses that animate knightly hearts, and then leave time
and accident to discover, if they will, whether he was guilty or no.

At the Rubin Blog, we consider ourselves to be at one with Twain's rage, though of course the issues have changed (but see the following paragraphs) and we do not believe that Professor Alan Gribben's Dolores-Umbridge-inspired prettyfying of American history does anyone any good as it generally short-circuits the justifiable rage that one could muster about any number of political issues. Such is the dismaying attitude not only of a silly professor in Alabama, but of the vast majority of political pundits and various television celebrities, all of whom would assiduously avoid saying "nigger" but who would be loath to remark on racial matters with anything approaching honesty.

Case in point: as one final note, I can't help but relish the irony that such a rationale is being dished out by an employee of Auburn University, which if you haven't been paying attention, is about to play for the national championship. Look at their webpage, which as of this writing has a gleaming picture of their star quarterback Cam Newton! Cam has been at the center of a number of stories detailing inappropriate transactions between various schools and his father in a "pay-for-play" arrangement.

How badly does this story stink? It depends on whether you choose to point the finger at Newton and his family, or rather the system which blithely chews up and spits out players, the vast majority of whom do not have a future in the NFL. This system does this, moreover, with generally little regard for a given player's education (or indeed, their eligibility to attend such schools), but rather in the quest for tens of millions of dollars in advertising revenue as funneled through ESPN and other major networks. Most of the colleges of the major conferences such as the SEC, Big-10, ACC, Pac-10 and former Big-12 have large numbers of football players, a good many of whom are African-American and frequently are descended from the very people that Twain wrote about; these players are being systematically exploited in ways that any impartial observer would at least find vaguely similar to the economic system of slavery that every Serious Thinker publicly declares as a thing of the dark ages. And what is the skin color of most of the boosters and coaches and University students that come to the stadium on Saturday ready for the rah-rah-rah! as long as their players are winners, damned be everything else? I'm thinking they're mostly white.

Go team!

Sometime soon: Billy Rubin, The Patient.

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