Controversy as Catalyst
By the time these words reach you, you may already be weary of pervasive commentary about the publication of Dr. Alan Gribben’s “sanitized” editions of Mark Twain’s works, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, from Newsouth Books; certainly, there is no shortage of opinion already published and broadcasted about the substitution of the word “slave” for the pervasive “n-word” in Huckleberry Finn. However, any topic relevant to libraries and Intellectual Freedom I had planned to discuss in this column pales for me in the shadow of this issue. Huckleberry Finn is, after all, one of the most challenged titles on record; on the ALA’s list of frequently challenged books by decade, it can be found at number five for the years 1990-1999, and at number 14 for the years 2000-2009.
Karyn Storts-Brinks is the librarian at Fulton High School, Knoxville, Tennessee. firstname.lastname@example.org
Librarians fight to preserve materials like Huckleberry Finn in their collections, and thus in the public consciousness, because among our responsibilities we are charged with representing the record of the human experience in its entire scope in our collections, without regard to our own biases or those of any small faction in our communities, no matter how vocal these factions might be. The weight of this responsibility should feel heavy; we do what we do because we value authors and the art they produce for the way they reflect the breadth of our humanity back at us. They are the voice of our collective experience, and we value their ability to illustrate and condense all of the complexities of what it means to be human in their work.
The “n-word” is absolutely ugly, and it should make us uncomfortable—that’s the point. It is proof that words are powerful. We should be grateful for the power of words to horrify us, because that means that there are also words that can help us experience a whole breadth of other emotions that assure us of our own humanity. Allowing ourselves to acknowledge that word and everything it so powerfully connotes in our nation’s history is to fully acknowledge the reality of our fellow countrymen with ancestors who were subjected to the worst that humanity can muster. How dare we attempt to “sanitize” this painful history? Less controversial words won’t prettify the reality, and fear of this kind of restriction is a burden on the artist that will invariably diminish the effect that an author is able to elicit from his or her work.
As honorable as the intention by which Dr. Gribben was no doubt motivated, to bring the work of a respected American author to a wider audience without alienating readers, I believe that this decision is representative of a steep and slippery slope of censorship, and evokes a variety of examples of recent controversies of library materials. I am reminded of the tragic stories I have heard about librarians “editing” Maurice Sendak’s beautiful children’s picture book In the Night Kitchen by using white-out to draw a diaper on Mickey’s illustrated nudity. Speaking of genitalia, librarians also had a struggle over Susan Patron’s Newberry-winning Higher Power of Lucky and the word scrotum appearing on the first page. The context of the appearance of that word is all about the power words can wield over us, ironically.
Not much is closer to the core of our humanity than reproductive organs carried around by half of the population, and clearly we have difficulty talking about them, even in clinical terms, but pretending they don’t exist can’t be helpful to young people who are still figuring out what it means to be a person. How are any of us supposed to learn a healthy sense of what is not shameful versus what certainly is if we never provide the catalyst for a conversation about these issues? How can we properly celebrate what is best about our humanity or mourn what is worst about it if we are never exposed to the most dramatic of its highs and lows? When an author holds up a mirror and invites us to take a look, we shouldn’t be afraid of what we might see, because ultimately what can be found there is the determination to be better.