On Mark Twain, Censors and Revisionism

The Master Fabulist Chillin On his Porch

Some Reflections on Samuel Clements And His Niggers!

Again we are confronted with a controversy over the liberal use of the epithet “Nigger” in Mark Twains’s novel Huckleberry Finn, an American literary classic.  This time the debate was sparked by the decision of a publisher to remove all 200 references to the word in the text.  In the opinion of many well meaning Americans this was a good thing, but it is also considered a good thing by some Americans with larceny in their hearts and duplicity on their minds.  These are the people who want to rewrite American history in order to obscure the truth about American racism.  A black Harvard Professor even wrote a book called “Nigger,” in which he argues that the prolific use of the epithet by young blacks has robbed it of its value to hurt us emotionally.  I remain unconvinced.

Since I grew up at a time when “Nigger” was an epithet designed to deny our humanity and supply a pseudo-scientific justification for a legal,  albiet immoral, racial caste system I abhor the word.  Thus I will never be able to come to terms with it.  Although I understand that “Nigger” is a versatile term that has different meanings depending upon who is using it, intent and context are the determining factors.

Like the word Fuck, which in its original incarnation was an acronym, ” For unlawful Carnal Knowledge,”  It can be a noun or an adjective; a term of of endearment or a “fighting word.”  For instance “I want to fuck you” or “Fuck you!”  It all depends upon who is using it and why.  A clear example of Twain using the word Nigger in a positive context, was when he was asked what he thought of an operatic performance he had just witnessed at the world renowned Opera House, La Scala, in Italy.  To wit Twain replied in his usual candid manner: “The Europeans can have their Grand Opera, I’d rather see a good nigger show any day!” Just as he had celebrated the American idiom in literature, Twain exalted the original music and dance of America, which he recognized was the creation of black folk.  And that tradition is now the most imitated in the world!

Even understanding the various sides to the argument however, unlike people who argue that it’s cool for rappers and other black youths to use the word, I think the popularity of “Nigger” is a reflection of the collapse of the black family and the absence of intelligent parenting! My children grew up in a hip hop dominated cultural milieu – coming of age in Harlem in the last two decades of the twentieth century -yet I have never heard either of them use the word. That’s no accident; they had intelligent parents who taught them better. This is what parents are supposed to do; it’s called “home training!”

When I have written about this in the past I have met resistance from those who want to argue that one can be a well raised, intelligent, literate Afro-American and still like to use the word Nigger.  Some have even styled the epithet into the words Niggaz, or nigga, as my homie Alexa Birdsong spells it on the Face Book thread where this Commentary originated.  Perhaps, but they are usually sports, poseurs, pretenders to a ghetto cool that they have been convinced is authentic blackness.  Their attitude toward “nigger” is the same class of phenomenon as the thrill that rich square whites get slumming in Harlem bars.  But I think this is a dangerous way to be cool.

I am convinced that the profligate use of “Nigger” gives license to the coarser elements among us – especially the  lumpen proletariat, “Underclass” is the present term of art – who use it anywhere and everywhere and thus encourage others to use it.  But when these other folks call us niggers they ain’t joking!  The tragedy in this is compounded by the fact that many of these young blacks who are calling themselves niggers, and allowing others to call them niggers, are so clueless they can’t tell if the “others” are laughing with them or laughing at them.  This tragedy becomes disastrous when our youths internalize the conception of themselves as niggaz, which is generally synonymous with ignorant, anti-social, violent, thugs!  The sort of niggaz you see in gangsta rap videos.

Even as abundantly gifted and intelligent – though grotesquely confused about the meaning of manhood – as Tupac Shakur was, he died before he ever really had a chance to live trying to be “a real nigger!”  We see the full dimensions of this tragedy in a study conducted by a group of Harvard scholars who inquired into the reasons for the dramatic rise in gun violence among young Cape Verdean men in Boston.  They concluded that the single most important factor in this disaster was the adoption of Tupac’s “Thug Life” values!

A Real Nigga?

Thug Life = Dead Before Thirty!

As to the question at hand, the use of “nigger” in the novels of Mark Twain. I have but this to say. I am viscerally opposed to the arbitrary rewriting of canonical texts. In the hands of a good teacher this text can serve as a great tool for teaching kids about the racist history of this country. This is especially true if they explore who Mark Twain was and his ideas about racial justice. Mark Twain is in my estimation the father of the American novel.

He was the first to write in the American idiom and raise it to the level of art, and he was one of the most caustic critics of American racism and a cynic on the question of “White Supremacy.”   One need only read “The Soliloquy of King Leopold,” one of the most compelling indictments of the crimes of European colonialism in Africa ever written.  When you consider the period in which it was written the work becomes all the more remarkable.

If one were to peruse the essays in the collection “The God Dam Human Race” you will find passionate and informed indictments of American government crimes in annexing the Philippines and insightful comments about the global color bar.  For instance, there is a incident in a cafe in India which causes him to reflect on the similarity in the treatment of Indians in India by the British colonialists, and the treatment of blacks in America.  This realization propts him to critically comment on the global nature of white supremacy and speculate about its eventual and inevitable downfall.   By any objective measure, for a white man who grew up in a slave society Mark Twain was light years ahead of his time. Approached from this perspective his novel can be a powerful teaching tool against racist ideology!

However the present attempt to sanitize Twain’s texts presents us with another danger: It could easily give aid and comfort to those reactionary forces who are attempting to sanitize the horrid history of the American South, even going so far as to rewrite textbooks so that slavery is never mentioned in discussions about the Causes of the Civil War!   Monkeying around with history is a dangerous business, because there are invaluable insights we can gain about the nature of contemporary life in America from a serious objective study of the past! As the Harvard philosopher George Santayana warned: Those who refuse to learn from history are bound to repeat its mistakes!

A Comment On the Question Of Revisionist History

Now, let me say a word in defense of revisionist history. Since most people think the present attempt we are witnessing by southern politicians to direct the rewriting of public school text books in order to sanitize their scandalous past as “revisionist” history, the term is routinely used as a pejorative.   But, like things you’re libel to read in the bible, it ain’t necessarily so.   History is always being revised. That’s because it’s such a vast subject that our knowledge about the past continues to grow as new evidence about what actually happened in the past is uncovered.  Sometimes these new interpretations are the result of the development of new research techniques and rules of evidence.  This is why if you look at any scholarly history book – which is to say historical studies written by professional historians who are published in peer reviewed journals and university presses – the preface to the book will always say “A history,” rather than “The history.”

The reason for this is dictated by the nature of the enterprise. Some people think that history literally means “His Story” and represents nothing more than a book of subjective speculations colored by individual biases. Others think that a history book written by a professional historian is the final word on the subject. Neither conception of historical writing is true.  There was a time in the past when that was true however; there were even historians who thought that they were interpreting the intent of God. The ancient Greek historians wrote about myths as if they were reality and included them in their interpretation of history. American historians have gone through several incarnations. But they have arrived at the present state of the art, which is a scientific approach. By scientific approach I mean that they employ the scientific method; which is based upon a simple proposition. The only way to arrive at the truth is by impartialy weighing the evidence.

Now, this is a complicated subject; I shall attempt to make it simple. When I became a history professor in 1969, the major debate among professional historians was whether writing history was a narrative art or a social science. This was no picayune discussion because the way you defined this discipline would determine both your methods and objectives.  For instance, historians are normally committed to detailed study of a discreet event or period, and they have rigorous rules of evidence. The evidence falls into different categories and are accorded different levels of importance. There is primary, secondary and tertiary evidence for instance. Primary evidence is the most important to the historian trying to reconstruct a narrative of past events. An example of primary evidence are official records like birth, marriage and death certificates.

Personal papers like letters, diaries and unpublished writings. Newspapers are a critical source of primary evidence. Secondary evidence would include letters and diaries of contemporaries, etc. Then there are massive amounts of state papers i.e. government documents and official records of the government. Depending upon the nature of the history one is writing, different kinds of documents are assigned more weight. The careful historian will check and double-check the various sources to see that they support his conclusions.

This is the approach of the traditional historian employing a scientific method, yet views his discipline as essentially a narrative art. That is to say that after they have mined this vast store of evidence they must then turn it into a coherent narrative that takes the reader into the past guided by the learned insights of the historian. This is a very complex discipline, and one of the vices the historian must avoid is the over use of literary devices.

That’s why so much academic historical writing is boring to the non-specialist, and thus they are read mostly by colleagues and students, who are in a state of involuntary servitude and must do the bidding of their professors. Those historians who gain a following outside of academia are the ones who are great writers, like Dr. W.E.B. DuBois for instance. And those who are proclaimed by the masses – like Yosef Ben-Jochannan, John Henrik Clarke and Dr. Leonard Jeffries are not historians at all based on the standards that I have outlined. They are what professional historians call “popularizers,” which are people who popularize the primary research of the historical researchers by teaching their texts to wider audiences than they would normally enjoy.  But none of these men has produced an original historical study.

On the other hand, the finest example of a great historical researcher is the brilliant and prolific Dr. Gerald Horne, the “John and Rebecca Moores” Professor of History at the University Of Houston.   Dr. Horne’s work is unusual in the sense that he writes about societies all over the world, whereas today most historians specialize in a particular period or area of the world.  All of Dr. Hornes works are based on original documentary research and published in peer-reviewed journals and university presses.  Which is the ultimate sanction of a book’s  authority.

Yet there are people who teach history for years but never actually write a study based on original research. Some write important books that synthesize the many scholarly studies into a new interpretation. That’s what I did in my book on Dr. Dubois “Reconsidering the Souls Of Black Folks,” which was written as one of two essays in a dialogue with Stanley Crouch, McArthur Fellow and member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I wrote four fifths of the book and mine was the lead essay. It is an essay in intellectual and cultural history that drew on a wide range of texts to produce a fresh interpretation of that classic American book. This was also an exercise in revisionist history.

Suffice it to say that revisionist history can be a positive or negative thing. When I entered the academy, American historians were engaged in a massive revision of the racist histories that had been written by historians who were committed racist and attempted to rig the historical record to serve their contemporary objectives.  The effort of American historians to revise that racist narrative was a noble quest…one of the professions finest hours!

What we are facing now is something else. The effort to revise the historical record is not led by professional historians, but clueless politicians trying to create a fictional narrative posing as history that will serve their contemporary political objectives!    Professional historians regard this as “special pleading.”  Hence they are not interested in correcting the historical  record, they just want to create propaganda that will be useful in recruiting their red neck cracker constituents. This is dangerous and must be opposed!

The best way to deal with this thorny problem is to leave the writing of history to the professionals, who are motivated by a passionate search for truth, and bound by ironclad rules of evidence.  No courtroom has  more exacting standards!  The politicians who want to substitute propaganda for history in order to achieve short term political ambitions should be drawn, quartered, and fed to the wolves!!!



Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

Janurary 15, 2011

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