Human dignity and a bad word

By Frank Wessling

“You are made in the image and likeness of God.” This should be a first lesson heard and experienced by every child. That too often it isn’t, is a tragedy.

That society often negates and contradicts that lesson for whole classes of children is a historic sin. When the light of human dignity has been darkened for a long time by the customs and laws of a community, something deep in our character must have been at work. Even after we have turned toward the light and corrected the worst surface abuses, we need to keep an open, honest memory.

We don’t know what threads of that evil remain latent among us. A little shared shame is a healthy reminder to be on watch.

This is why the language used by Mark Twain in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” should be preserved, including his frequent use of “nigger.” A new edition of Twain’s 19th century masterpiece replaces that expression of racial contempt with “slave.” This is unacceptable.

American history is thick with the slavery of black people and their later oppression by segregation. Twain helps us remember that slavery was more than an economic system. It was basically a form of inhuman contempt for the Other. And he shows us this without lecturing.

His characters come to life so vividly in the novel because they speak what the heart feels in the patois of their time, not what politically correct folks might say for the public record.

The story of Huck and the slave Jim is the art that reveals us to ourselves at a particular moment in time. Twain drew the character of Jim with enormous dignity. The clarity of that achievement would be lost without its backdrop of the cruel language used so casually in his time.

The n-word, ugly and painful as it may be, is integral to Twain’s art. He would surely haunt us if we cut it out. Whitewashing is for fences, not history; and not consciences.

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