- Every year, in my honors English class, I teach “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” You’d be surprised by the controversies this book has inspired. Despite T.S. Eliot calling it a masterpiece and Ernest Hemingway calling it the source of all modern American literature, people on the left and the right want to censor or ban the book. One of the most commonly voiced objections is the use of “nigger” some 219 times in the book. My students, black and white and otherwise, deal well with the book because they are more than smart enough to understand that language and its use changes over time, and there are few books that are more supportive of the humanity and dignity of blacks than Huck Finn. In a real sense, being upset at Twain for using “nigger” requires one to ignore a book that surely caused millions to think differently about blacks and to change their minds about their place in society. However, the forces of political correctness never rest, and an English professor, of all people, has produced a sanitized edition of the book, removing not only “nigger,” but “Injun,” replacing them with “slave.”Unsurprisingly, Twain scholars are appalled by this, as am I. Once we begin imposing contemporary conventions on history, we lose the ability to understand history. In effect, we lose ourselves, for we can no longer tell how we’ve evolved, or in some cases, failed to evolve.
But this is not the only misuse of language involving words. “Niggardly” has, over recent years, caused a substantial run of bad fortune for more literate speakers. The word has nothing whatever to do with race–its origin is probably Scandinavian–and means “stingy“ or “begrudging.”
In 1999, David Howard, an aide to D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, was fired because he used the word to describe how he planned to manage a city fund’s tight budget. He was eventually rehired when the Mayor became better educated.
Also in 1999, a college student refused to become educated:
Student Amelia Rideau is upset that her professor used the ‘N-ardly’ word at least twice: Once on Jan. 25 during a class on 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and once in a subsequent class to explain the word’s meaning. Ms. Rideau was outraged, and is demanding the UW implement a speech code, which would punish anyone using what she described as ‘offensive’ language – including the ‘N-ardly’ word. She urged the university not to require proof of intent before punishing verbal villains such as her professor.
According to the Star Tribune: ‘Upset about the word’ s similarity to a racial slur, Rideau talked to her professor, who then explained the word’ s background, she said. On Friday, the professor repeated the word and defined it for the class, Rideau said. Angry he revisited the topic after she asked him not to, Rideau began to cry and stormed from the room. On Monday, she brought three black friends with her to the class for support, she said’ (Associated Press, via Star Tribune 02/03/99).
I’ve not been able to determine whether Ms. Rideau was able to impose a speech code or whether she dealt with the reality of the denotation of “niggardly.”
My “favorite” story about the word comes from 2002 when Stephanie Bell, a 4th grade teacher in Wilmington, NC mentioned the word in class during a discussion about literary characters. A parent took offense, and despite doing nothing whatever wrong, Ms. Bell was reprimanded.
I particularly remember seeing that parent on one of the evening talk shows. She was indignant when told what the word actually meant, and demanded that the teacher be fired anyway because the word sounded like “nigger.”
One might think that by 2013, we would move beyond such silliness and un-literacy. One would think incorrectly. Consider this yahoo news report:
A Bronx teacher has filed a lawsuit claiming she was fired for using the word ‘negro’ in class. ‘Negro’ is the Spanish word for the color black.
One of the first lessons one learns in English class is that context is everything. The same holds true in Spanish.
…Petrona Smith…says in a lawsuit that she was fired from teaching at Bronx PS 211 in March 2012 after a seventh-grader reported that she’d used the “N” word, according to The New York Post.
Smith doesn’t deny using the word. But she argues that everyone uses it, when speaking Spanish. She was teaching the Spanish words for different colors, and the color “black” in Spanish is “negro.” She also taught the junior high school students, in this bilingual school, that the Spanish term for black people is “moreno.” And by the way, Smith, who is from the West Indies, is black.
Context is everything.
Context is indeed important, but not for people who are determined to remain minimally literate. Mark Twain is probably turning in his grave, or knowing Twain, he’s probably laughing at the foolishness involved.