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The N-Word, Huck Finn & My Kids

As a person who makes a living off words, I try not to be a hypocrite when it comes to language and my own kids. I try to teach that all words have a time and place; how and when you choose to use them are just as important as what comes out of your mouth. Forbidding a word gives it power. Maybe that's why I showed my kids (ages 10 and 11) the video of singer Cee Lo Green's original song, titled Fuck You, after they saw the sanitized version, Forget You, on Glee. The cleaned-up version, we all agreed, carried none of the shock and indignation of the real version.

Still, my kids know that listening to the f-word in a song is much different than saying it to a teacher or adult. The writer's mantra holds true for most situations in life: Consider your audience (or suffer the consequences).

There are very few words I absolutely forbid my kids from using. In fact, I can only think of one.

The one that appears 219 times in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Nigger is so hateful, so loaded, so riddled with deep wounds that I wince typing it. It's gotta be the most uncomfortable word in the English language. In fact, the n-bomb makes so many people cringe that Auburn University professor and Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben is cutting it out of a new edition of Mark Twain's classic for Alabama's NewSouth Books. He's replacing the racially-charged word with "slave." (He's also changing the name of "Injun Joe" to "Indian Joe.")

Gribben argues the n-word has kept this marvelous book off of so many school reading lists (true; it's the 4th most banned book in American schools) that it's better to have kids read a sanitized version of it than not at all. And he's got a point. If we can edit an offensive word out of a pop song and present a cleaned- up version of it on TV and radio, why can't we do the same for what Ernest Hemingway once called "the best book we've had?"

But just because we can doesn't mean we should. Excising the n-word from Huck changes his story entirely. Published in 1885, Twain's book has at its moral center the story of a white boy who chooses to help a slave escape. A reader can't understand what kind of courage that took unless the intense, intrinsic social bigotry of the time is unleashed in all its fury. The word that does that best begins with the letter n. Taking it out of the book – and today's classrooms – destroys not only the story, but all those teachable moments it can spawn. What's next? A happy ending for Anne Frank?

Some of the best conversations I've had in life were about books and they occurred in classrooms. For that, I have some pretty incredible high school English teachers to thank. Huck Finn not only is an important piece of our literary history, it's a jumping off point for dialogue about race in America ... racial stereotypes in literature ... how the use of the n-word has evolved ... how rap artists have seized it and tried to make it their own ... how the use of it can still cause a talk show host to lose her job. I trust our teachers to give the book context and have those conversations. Do you?

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