4ALL: Forgetting the Past in the Name of Accessibility

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Recently, there was an announcement that a publisher was editing Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn by replacing the word “nigger” with the less-offensive “slave” in order to make the book more accessible for students. This has been a hot-button topic for civil rights activists and First Amendment advocates, but those in education are also drawn in when considering the important place Huckleberry Finn holds in the American canon.

As the publishers suggest, the book could become more accessible as a historically charged word is stripped from the text in order to make it less offensive. Undoubtedly, there are teachers, administrators, parents, and entire school districts who don’t want the “n-word” or any other racial epithet in their schools no matter the context. This move by the publishers could allow schools to return Huckleberry Finn to their reading lists and curriculum.

On the other side, critics worry about the altering of history. Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in the common language of the time. It’s an authentic representation of a portion of our nation’s past. Changing the Twain’s written work erases that past, offensive or not. Plus, this is a slippery slope on which the publishers are walking. What could be changed next? Will publishers begin to take out content from books that are objectionable to some but deviate from the author’s intended purpose?

There are a lot of issues to consider with the Huckleberry Finn controversy. Where do you lie? Is it worth editing a classic piece of American literature for the purposes of accessibility? Are we erasing history in the name of political correctness?

What would Mark Twain think? Would he be happy that more students could read his work or would he be angered at the thought of someone editing his writing?

Are you more concerned that some students wouldn’t get a chance to read this great piece of fiction without the edited version? Or are you more worried of the effects of a revisionist history? Tell us where you stand on this issue.

Zac Early is an instructional specialist for the eMINTS National Center.

One thought on “4ALL: Forgetting the Past in the Name of Accessibility”

  1. I really believe we should leave the work as Mark Twain wrote it. Perhaps we should not assign the book to students who are too young to examine the historical context and implications of the wording. For older students it could be such a great springboard for discussion about the history of race relations in our country.

    I agree we walk a slippery slope when we start altering texts for any reason, especially political ones.

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