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


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…

Tags: , , , ,

7 Responses to “Dick Gregory, Charles Barron, Huck Finn, and the n-word”

  1. Sam Gwynn Says:

    Frankly, I just can’t teach it any longer. I know it’s great, and I can lecture for a day or so about how Twain is being faithful to the dialects and to the way that people spoke back then. But trying to lecture about its literary merits takes a back seat when I see how African American students (I’m talking about teenage sophomores, taking the class for core credit) are reacting to the iterations of THAT WORD. The problem is that Twain doesn’t distinguish between those who are using the word in a “kindly” manner (we could probably assume that this is the only word for black people that Huck has ever heard) and those who are using it an an epithet. Used indiscriminately in these ways, it just makes everyone in a classroom uncomfortable. Maybe if I were a better (or younger) teacher I could use this book to challenge all kinds of assumptions about language and art. I just don’t find myself up to the fight anymore, at least at the sophomore level. I think this is a pretty good 2/3 of a novel, but I really wonder why it has become canonized as the GAN.

  2. J.D. Says:

    Huck Finn is much more flawed a novel than people usually remember — as Hemingway pointed out, the entire ending, the last ten chapters or so, is a total cheat and inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the book.

    That said, the book is so clearly anti-racist that you’d have to be willfully ignorant (as Charles Barron apparently is) to read it otherwise.

  3. Tweets that mention The Book Haven » Blog Archive » Dick Gregory, Charles Barron, Huck Finn, and the n-word -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by chaven, chaven. chaven said: Should Huck Finn be banned? Dick Gregory, Charles Barron, Twain experts on the newest flap with the n-word in the media — http://bu.tt/axz […]

  4. Article Writing: James Baldwin : Collected Essays : Notes of a Native Son / Nobody Knows My Name / The Fire Next Time / No Name in the Street / The Devil Finds Work / Other Essays (Library of America) Says:

    […] The Book Haven » Blog Archive » Dick Gregory, Charles Barron, Huck Finn, and the n-word […]

  5. More on Huck Finn and Censorship - Brainstorm - The Chronicle of Higher Education Says:

    […] post at Brainstorm, but as far as I know, the controversy began with a blog post by Cynthia Haven here.  Interesting, it didn’t start with the new edition of the novel, but with a controversy […]

  6. Jennifer Says:

    This book, in this day and age, is unsuitable as required middle/high school reading. It does nothing to enable self determination and learning for African American youth. Much better models are out there and need to be used. Huck Finn should be relegated to the “suggested reading” shelf. No other culture/nation has ever had to be degraded in this matter for the purpose of gaining “better race relations”. This book has been translated to so many countries who have barely any knowledge of the true intelligence of Black people.

  7. mickey Says:

    damn that shorty Tylibah is bangin!!

Leave a Reply