Off the clock with The Checkout Girl: A Jim by any other name

last week, Publisher’s Weekly announced that New South publishing will release a new, racial slur-free version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, replacing the N-word — which appears 219 times — with the word “slave”. Here The Checkout Girl shares her thoughts…we hope you will, too.

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

I didn’t meet an African American person until I was four years old. It was my first day of Kindergarten, and the man was my new elementary school principal. When he bent down to greet me, I screamed and ran away, leaving my poor mother standing there, horrified and speechless.

My mom loves to tell that story. Give her a good Thanksgiving or Christmas captive audience, and she regales with it. It’s second only to the story of how I tried to drown my brother in the bathtub, and paramedics had to snatch him from death’s grasp. God, Mom, get over it! I WAS TRYING TO BATHE THE BABY!

The truth is, race and racism have played a very small role in my life. I was born and raised in Southern California. Look up “melting pot” in the dictionary (Do people still have dictionaries? Okay, Google it, then.) and you’ll likely find some reference to the little corner of the world where I grew up — a place where nearly everybody is a mix of something. Also, I’m white which, in many ways, means I had the luxury of being blissfully unaware of the hatred some people felt toward others for the color of their skin. Or the superiority they felt because of the color of their own. I had heard the word “nigger” tossed about, but didn’t really know the depth of the meaning or the sensitivities surrounding it. I did know, like curse words, that I shouldn’t use it in front of my parents. But the fact is, I never really had occasion to use it at all.

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, same as many of you, and I loved it. We discussed the work in class without much fanfare. Obviously, our teacher said, the book was lampooning racism and racists in an over-the-top way. I got it. The slave, Jim, was noble, kind, and strong, while the people who treated him as “less than” because of the color of his skin were made to look like ignorant buffoons. I always saw it that way because that’s the way it was presented to me. But last week, Publisher’s Weekly announced that NewSouth Books will release a new, racial slur-free version of Huckleberry Finn, replacing the N-word — which appears 219 times — with the word “slave”. Why would a book that pokes fun at racism be improved by editing the most glaring instances of it from its text?

Well, Auburn University professor and Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who has adapted the novel for NewSouth, says it’s in order to get the book into more hands, exposing a greater number of students to an important literary work.

“After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable […] For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs,” he said.

“H’aint we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”

He has a point, but people are upset. There are cries of censorship, claims of whitewashing our racist history. An army of those carrying the First Amendment like a shield. And, my personal favorite, “Black people use the word in rap songs all the time, what’s the big deal?” The big deal is that I learned a lot about the folly of racism, as well as brilliantly making a point through satire, from this book; I would hate to see today’s teens deprived of those lessons. If that’s the one thing standing between them and knowledge, then I say print an edited version for those who want it.

“I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n.”

And, fear not, those lobbying for the original. Watered-down versions of both Shakespeare and the Bible (Twain, himself, said “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Classic.) have been offered to the public, but never caught on. And the unedited version will still be available, giving people a choice about what they (and their children) read.

“I knowed he was white inside.”

Myself, I had forgotten how wonderful this book was until the controversy stirred up memories, prompting me to order the classic version for my teenagers. The original language is a good chance to have a valuable discussion with them about racism, religion, and the history of our country. As an adult, I am now aware of how hurtful that language was and is, but I also think Mark Twain does a fantastic job of showcasing the ignorance of those who use it. Plus, reading it aloud is super fun (faux accents a must). Now, if only my mom would find new stories to tell. Preferably about my brothers.

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The Checkout Girl

The Checkout Girl is Jennifer Lemons. She’s a storyteller, comedian, and musician. If you don’t see her sitting behind her laptop, check the streets of Richmond for a dark-haired girl with a big smile running very, very slowly.

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