Nigger or slave? That's the question

MLK day passed, more or less uneventfully, though I did catch a fascinating interview with Clarence Jones by Dave Davies on NPR's Fresh Air. Jones is coauthor of a new book, Behind the Dream, the story behind the story of MLK's "I Have a Dream Speech." I haven't read it, but I will.

Anyway, MLK day is behind us, but it's still Black History Month, so let's continue with the theme.

Today's topic: the forthcoming censored edition of Mark Twain's Huck Finn by Alan Gribben and NewSouth Books. (See the original story in Publisher's Weekly.) Gribben's edition replaces the verboten "N-word" (nigger), which appears 219 times in the original, with the word slave. If you recall, in Huck Finn, Jim is a runnaway slave befriended by young Huck.

Well, slave instead of nigger certainly makes me feel better. Nothing offensive there. And I'll bet Jim is dancing in his grave at the promotion. As Larry Wilmore points out on The Daily Show slave is a temporary situation -- a job description (albeit for a pretty crummy job). Nigger, on the other hand, is a permanent condition, impossible to run away from.

Sure, nigger is a fighting word. For whites, it's worse than any 4-letter slur you can fling at blacks. That's why it captures so well the tenor of the times. I suspect Mark Twain used it so exactly for that reason. But we're reinventing history here to make it fit today's sensibilities. This is nuts, but at least its fruitful grist for the pundits. It keeps them busy.

I've got some thoughts on this: we've got folks in Soda Springs who use the dreaded word nigger without a second thought -- even Buck Bennett, and he's about as far removed from the Alabama trooper and Priscilla McPherson as he could be. Yep, he does. So does Rick Sanders, but that's in one of his Sunday School skits, believe it or not. Who knew that racism creeps all the way into the lilly white hinterlands? Or does it?

I'll tell you more next time.