I’m commenting on this in part because it’s an important issue, of course, though not because I’m particularly invested in the preserving the book as it is each time it’s published. I have to admit, too, that I’m joining this conversation here partly because I’m a black writer and so I’ve been getting those looks.
You know the ones. The looks you get from someone in a position of privilege, who wants you to give permission to speak on an issue by speaking up about it first. Those looks I complain about now, but that maybe Roger Ebert could have used with a person of color before he went and spoke up about an issue that has nothing to do with him. The issue of the tweet is simple enough – as a white man, Ebert wasn’t in any position to state his opinion on which term he’d prefer, when he’d never have to worry about being called either. He knows this now.
But the question remains about the use of the word itself, about censorship we’re demanding for not only modern spaces like Twitter, but for literature published as far back as 1884. I think it’s one thing to discuss what the n-word means to us today – to question whether modern hip-hop artists who popularize the term, for example, should be criticized for disregarding its history or praised for reclaiming the word. Personally, I believe that the word’s long, ugly history is enough that we should put it behind us for good.
I think of my position as a writer, however, and I know if I’d used the n-word as much as Twain had in a work of my own, I would feel it was excessive, I’d be uncomfortable with it, and I’d certainly try to avoid it. If I were writing a historical work in which the word has a role, however, to censor myself would be to deny historical truth. Avoiding the use of a word with a violent history simply to allow readers to stay in their places of comfort is dangerous, and not in a good way. Rather than attempt to rewrite history in terms we can all find on a page without spilling our morning coffee, we must face the truth of our past, even those uncomfortable truths we’d rather avoid.
The important part of this whole controversy is that it’s led to a discussion. We can ask ourselves and each other why these words feel so awful to us, so we remember their history and understand how we should move forward. These conversations should happen all the time, though – it shouldn’t take censorship to threaten to take away our words for us to realize their significance. But Mark Twain has already made his statement – I say let that remain as is, and let’s keep the conversation going between you and I.