When it comes to writing, the right word is crucial

February 04, 2011|Kate Coleman

Remember this?
“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”
That was something my mother would say whenever one of her three daughters would tattle that one of the other two — or a classmate — had called her a bad name. It might have been something as nasty as “Baby” or “Smarty-pants” in my what-now-seems-incredibly civil New Jersey childhood.
Mom’s message was “Don’t sweat the small stuff” — although I don’t think the phrase had yet been coined, and she most likely would have considered “sweat” too coarse.
Some names, however, do hurt.
My parents were crystal clear that the “n-word” was forbidden.
You know what I mean, don’t you? I can’t even bring myself to type it. And it can’t be printed in this newspaper.
But I have to say I can’t believe a new edition of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is about be released with all 219 instances of the n-word changed to “slave.”
Yes, the word is hateful and hurtful and probably keeps some teachers from teaching the book because “students can’t get past the racial slur,” as Allen Gribben, editor of the NewSouth Books version claims.
But bowdlerize Twain?
I don’t believe in censorship.  
I know how hard I work to find just the right words for my inconsequential little columns. I think my editors know that I’m open to suggestions, but I’ll go to the mat for a word I’m sure is the only one that says what I want it to.
Twain, of course, said it best in an 1888 letter, according to “The difference between the almost-right word & the right word is ... the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
The new edition’s word choice might be close enough for some, but it is not precise and it is not the author’s.
“It’s never a good idea to sugarcoat the past,” Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts wrote in his recent piece about this very topic. “Even a cursory glance at the historical record will show that Twain’s use of the reprehensible word was an accurate reflection of that era,” he added.
“We should teach youngsters about history, not try to protect them from it,” wrote Clarence Page — also a Pulitzer winner, also a black man — in his Jan. 9 Chicago Tribune column.
An opportunity for a history lesson is slated to take place Thursday, Feb. 10, at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, Conn.
It almost got canceled.
In his Jan.19 “Behind the Curtain On Connecticut’s Stages” blog, Hartford Courant arts columnist Frank Rizzo reported that the Waterbury Board of Education was slated to decide whether the Waterbury Arts Magnet School would be allowed to proceed with its production of August Wilson’s drama, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
The performance was in doubt because the superintendent sought to shut it down because teenage actors would have to say the n-word as written in the script.
“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is part of the award-winning playwright’s 10-play cycle chronicling the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century. It is set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911.
The work wasn’t chosen lightly. Its rights holder would not permit substituting a different word. The work was read aloud to the parents of the mostly black children and none of them chose the offered option of having their child withdraw, Rizzo reported.
Jan. 20th’s four-hour Board-of-Education meeting yielded a compromise: There will be talks before and after the performance that place Wilson’s play in its historical context and engage the audience in discussions on race, Rizzo wrote.
The show will go on.
And so, I think, will the learning.

Kate Coleman covers The Maryland Symphony and writes a monthly column for The Herald-Mail.

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