Every so often, there is a bunch of fuss over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Although the novel contains all sorts of violence and ugly human behaviour, the flap is usually over one word*.
As words go, it’s a pretty damn hurtful one. It’s shorthand for African-Americans experiencing hundreds of years of slavery and injustice and poverty and horribleness.
But when I saw, some time ago, that someone had decided to come out with a ‘clean’ version of Huck Finn†, I was quite upset.
Part of it is a general distaste for censorship—I’m one of those people who believes that you’re always allowed to make art, no matter if other people don’t like it. But more importantly, I get really pissed off over the ‘cleanup’ of history.
Whatever the bogus, sugar-coated claims of the book’s publisher, it was not about making ‘black students feel more comfortable’. First of all, if you’re black in America, you know that word. Second, the discomfort generated by the book and the use of the n-word is, in most peoples’ experience, the result of teachers totally flubbing it and making the whole thing into an exercise in misguided attempts at political correctness instead of having a frank discussion**.
Cleaning up history doesn’t make oppressed groups feel better. We’re well aware of what went down. It makes everyone else feel better. It’s about averting that uncomfortable discussion about the meaning of that hurtful slur so that there doesn’t have to be a lesson on slavery and racism and make the white folks feel the weight of their ingrained privilege.
There is a big temptation in writing original historical fiction as well to ‘clean up’ or ‘modernise’ the characters—particularly the good guys—so that their mores fit with modern ideals. But doing so is an injustice to the people who were hurt by those ideas and systems rejected by modern society. Covering up the bad aspects of the past denies us the chance to use fiction as an avenue for learning and discussion and self-reflection, particularly on difficult social problems that persist in the present.
Underneath that fairly innocent ‘failure to learn from the past’ issue, however, lurks something a bit more Orwellian. Changing depictions of the past to something lighter and softer is fuel for the argument that whatever oppressed group which is currently agitating for the redress of past wrongs that have caused ripples of injustice in the present is ‘just winging’ and ‘all upset over nothing’ and that the problem in question ‘wasn’t that bad’.
If you’re truly uncomfortable writing about the past in an authentic light—engaging those ideas and customs that make you squirm—you can go create a fantasy setting. There is nothing wrong with that. As I have said before, escapist literature is awesome. And embracing your discomfort and writing about something original is much better than doing an injustice to the past.
*I know that many, many people believe the book to be flat-out racist, an opinion with which I heartily disagree. Instead of sidetracking this post, I will instead point you to Tony Morrison’s wonderful essay on the topic. She explains things a zillion times better than I can.
†It’s in the public domain.
**The #3 problem is that this book gets taught in elementary schools, where it is neither intellectually or emotionally age-appropriate.