Archive for December 30th, 2010

Dick Gregory, Charles Barron, Huck Finn, and the n-word

Thursday, December 30th, 2010
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Wants to ban Twain?

Mark Twain was “so far ahead of his time he shouldn’t even be talked about on the same day as other people,” according to comedian and author Dick Gregory.

His friend, Charles Barron, apparently doesn’t agree.  The New York City Councilman and former Black Panther took offense at a Brooklyn principal’s attempt to stop a volume of sexually explicit poems written by Barron’s goddaughter, Tylibah Washington, from being distributed at school.  “I find it interesting that Huckleberry Finn is a classic when it says [the n-word] 200 times. Tylibah’s book is the opposite. It’s very inspiring. I’d like to see Huckleberry Finn banned.”

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, writing in today’s New York Daily News, defended Huck, and she packs a heavy punch [an updated version of the editorial accommodates the latest n-word flap: it’s here — ED.]

“Barron claims to have entered politics to fight bigotry and to protest the sidelining of black voices in the cultural conversation. It’s ironic, therefore, that the principle he’s invoking to ban Mark Twain’s anti-racist classic — that books filled with the n-word shouldn’t be taught – would also ban from the nation’s classrooms many of the greatest and most inspiring works by black writers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Naughty poet?

The n-word is key to critiques of racism found in nonfiction from Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative,” to W.E.B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, to Richard Wright’s Black Boy, to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, to The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

It is just as central to critiques of racism in Paul Laurence Dunbar‘s classic story, ‘The Ingrate,’ and Countee Cullen‘s poem ‘Incident,’ not to mention novels including Richard Wright‘s Native Son, Ralph Ellison‘s Invisible Man, David Bradley‘s Chaneysville Incident, Ernest Gaines‘s A Lesson Before Dying – and, yes, Twain’s Huck Finn.

For to expose a racist society for what it is, you have to show racists as they are, speaking as they would speak.

The gifted black satirist and sportswriter, the late Ralph Wiley, who claimed Twain as his most important teacher, wrote that ‘there is not one use of [the n-word] in Huck Finn that I consider inauthentic, and I am hard to please that way.'”

She also notes the writers inspired by Twain, including Kenzaburo Oe, Japan’s Nobel Laureate.  David Bradley, who won the Pen/Faulkner prize for The Chaneysville Incident, credits Twain with having inspired him to become a writer in the first place, says Fishkin.

And of course she mentions Dick Gregory, who we wrote about here commenting on his best-selling autobiography Nigger (excerpt from Gregory’s essay in Fishkin’s new book, The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works):

“People were afraid to ask for my book, and bookstore owners were afraid to put it in their stores.  Some Black folks would go into a bookstore and say, ‘I want one of Dick Gregory’s what-you-call-it.’  They just couldn’t say the word. And White folks would say, ‘You named that book a title I just can’t say.’ Or they would complain, saying, ‘I just can’t stand the name of your new book.’ I didn’t hear White folks complaining about the word nigger when I was growing up.  I only heard them using it.  If they had complained about the word nigger in the past, there would not have been a need to name my book Nigger. Titling my book Nigger meant I was taking it back from White folks.  Mark Twain threw it up in the air and I grabbed it.”

Quite a wrap-up for the Year of Twain.

Postscript: Just got a note from Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence:

I just read your Twain post. Well done. I visited Hannibal, Mo., Twain’s home from the age of four, in the summer of 1990. The street ends at the Mississippi River. At the foot of the street, which was a boat landing stood one of those cast-iron historical markers on a post with all the expected stuff about Twain and Huck, etc. Mentioned on the marker was “[ ] Jim.” The brackets represent, obviously, “Nigger,” but a piece of steel plate had been welded over the word. Every literate person who looked that sign saw the offending word, in effect, underlined, italicized and written in boldface. Its censoring screamed it out louder than six letters ever could.

By the way, I spent a day with Dick Gregory, around 1984. I was a reporter in Richmond, Ind., the home of Earlham College where he was speaking. I had a ball with him. He was strident about vegetarianism and so forth but I remember him, during a lecture, sticking his hand in a bag of barbecue potato chips, getting it all greasy and red, and saying, “Look at this shit. What is this shit?” A naturally funny guy.

Some of us over at the Book Haven are rather strident about vegetarianism ourselves…