I Failed Mark Twain, and This is Our Punishment.

You may or may not know, that as recently as last year, I worked as a Dramaturg for a centennial tribute to Mr. Mark Twain at San Diego State University. As part of the project I ran both a blog and a twitter account, which I have linked. We began the project knowing only that our director, the very talented Margaret Larlham would be creating an entirely new youth oriented play based on the life and works of Mark Twain.

We began by acquainting ourselves with the massive body of work Twain produced in his lifetime (a monumental task) and examining which pieces not only had the most cultural impact, but what those impacts were, and looking for hidden gems that we could bring to the forefront. Inevitably, as we improvised within the construct of 19th Century United States, we were inevitably drawn back to the most universally known works, Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well as Mark Twain’s Autobiography. Before settling on the theme, we had one issue to address however: Slavery.

This is where I find the need to introduce the current issue. If you haven’t heard, Alabama based publishing company NewSouth Books will be issuing an edition of Huck Finn, which replaces the word “nigger,” with “slave.” The edition will also feature a rewrite of Tom Sawyer, removing the term, “Injun.”**

This story hits home with me in particular, because of our recent production.  During rehearsals, we had several conversations about terminology, slang and the need for historical accuracy. One of the more interesting things I discovered during these conversations, is that the people who had the most problem with the term “nigger,” were not the multi-racial or African-American members of the group, but the younger anglo-saxon members.  One of our actors physically had a hard time getting the word out. It was that hard for him to comprehend saying. Even Mrs. Larlham who was born in South Africa, was more comfortable with the subject, than this new generation.

My stance, was, and still is, that the use of the term is integral to historical accuracy, and Mark Twain’s theme, of learning to see beyond racial lines.  I found the prospect (and I say this as a person who is of mixed race, both black and white) of ignoring the term and the truth of our history, more degrading than taking the necessary time to not only use the term “nigger,” but educate our children on it’s uses before modern slang dropped the “r” and made it socially acceptable. My opinion, is that with the proper care, we can instill children with not only historical knowledge, but the understandings our own generation has gleaned from that knowledge, so that they in turn, can grow into a more aware generation.

The group ( some reluctantly) agreed. Margaret created a draft where not only did Mark Twain himself, come out and address the audience with his thoughts on slavery from this autobiography, but in which only the villains of the piece, used the “n-word.” It was a compromise I made happily, as this while remaining historically accurate, allowed us to showcase the word, as a “bad word.”

Then one, by one, the “n-word,” slowly disappeared from our script. Scenes were cut. Lines were cut short for time. An actor always forgot his line, and suddenly the word dropped completely from our radar. Mark Twain still addressed the issue of slavery, combined with historical photos I compiled to project onstage, but the opportunity for education, was unceremoniously and quietly, lost.

This is where you might think, “Well so what if you didn’t say the n-word to a bunch of kids. They’re parents are probably happier you didn’t.”

Well that’s the problem. If we don’t, who will? Parents are not having this conversation with children. Pressure from school boards is making it harder and harder for Teachers to have the conversation, and now, there will be a new sparkling edition, rid of this bad, dirty word, and with it, the sad, but true history of what our society has endured. Huck Finn, himself is not a “proper” character. He lives on the streets to escape his alcoholic, and abusive father. He fakes his own death and smokes cigars. He doesn’t speak in an educated tone, and knows the deep dark dirty secrets of the world.† It’s because of all of these things, that he is able to learn the truth in ways that the rebellious but all-together wholesome Tom Sawyer could never truly manage: The color of our skin does not define us.

Without these necessary evils, the truth cannot come pouring out like a shining beacon, and anyone who does not understand Mark Twain’s message of equality, after reading the novel, wasn’t really paying attention.  Where else should we focus on making children pay attention, but in the classroom?

In a way, I feel that the removal of “harsh language,” is only the beginning in a trend to clean the slate of our history as it is told to the children of the United States. Christopher Columbus is taught as being a clean-cut adventurer who discovered and planted a peaceful flag upon the American soil, instead of the man who took a credit which didn’t belong to him and proceeded to conquer and enslave the Native Americans. We cleaned him up. Now we are attempting to clean up slaver. It’s a new form of racism, the removal of an acceptance that what they did, was wrong.

I feel as though, I myself have failed. We had an opportunity, and I let it slip away. I cannot do that this time.  Yes, the word is uncomfortable (if you’ve stuck around through reading it on my blog, thank you), but it’s used for a reason. It’s there to shed light on the injustice of it all. It’s there, as a beacon for what was wrong in society, and continues to effect us today. Perhaps 200 years from now, the enslavement of African-American people will not be so relevant, and we can afford to remove these hateful reminders. Considering that slavery has been around for thousands of years however, I doubt it. Only with these reminders, can we attempt to prevent slavery’s resurrection.

Will we always be successful in reaching the minds of children, and instilling them with the facts of history?

No… but we can still try.

* I find it very interesting that every news piece I’ve read has used the term “n-word,” but feels no issue with the term “injun.”

**Isn’t it something, when someone whose work has been so enduring, is presumed to need a rewrite.

†None of these facts were omitted from the play, in fact the killing of Doc Sawbones and Huck’s abuse were both very creepy, and notable parts of the second act.

Picture: Samuel Clemens with childhood friend John T. Lewis, a former slave to Clemens’ uncle.


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