From the Judge's Chambers: Mark Twain meets the PC police: Reading with a jeweler's eye

By Judge WIlliam C. Whitbeck

The new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives opened the first session of the new Congress by reading the Constitution. (As an aside, I did see one comment on Facebook to the effect that it was unconstitutional to read the Constitution. There are some judges who may agree). But, as Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. noted, the question is which Constitution. The Constitution being read was the Constitution as amended. Such a reading omits that embarrassing little part of the original Article I that counted “others” — meaning slaves — as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportionment.

Strange as it may seem, I agree with Rep. Jackson. One cannot learn from history unless one knows of it. The blunt fact is that the Framers used purposefully ambiguous language to paper over the slavery question. In modern parlance, they kicked the issue down the road. They left it for the following generations to resolve years later in the smoke and din of the battlefields of the Civil War, at hideous cost in lives and treasure. No amount of retrospective rehabilitation will ever remove that stain on our Nation’s founding document. Slavery is our country’s original sin.

But we can learn from the Framers’ smokescreen. And one of the things we can learn is the importance of language itself. Language defines us. It expresses our thoughts, our feelings, our hopes, our fears, our strengths, our failings. If one wishes to know the temper of the times, whether in the streets of Paris during the Terror or in Waterloo, Iowa at a town meeting, one goes to the newspapers, the books, the official documents. And these records are in the language of the day. It was not by accident that the Framers referred to slaves as “others.” They did it deliberately, and fatefully, in the language of their times and that language indicts them.

A recent interview with Cher — carried on the internet as no family newspaper could run it — illustrates my point. She dropped the f-bomb into every second sentence. Cher is a sophisticated person. She chose her language deliberately, in order to shock, to titillate, and to draw attention to herself. She recognizes, as do most of the potty-mouth public exhibitionists of our day, the publicity value of being outrageous. And she used language designed precisely to have that effect.

So, what to do about Cher? Simply ignore her. But here is a more difficult question: What to do about Mark Twain? Mark Twain uses the n-word 219 times in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” That word is the most explosive in the lexicon of race relations in this country. For a white person — any white person in any context — to use it is to risk immediate categorization as a racist.

Alan Gibbon, a professor at Auburn University-Montgomery, has a simple solution. In his new edition of Twain’s classic, he substitutes “slave” for the n-word. (Just to show he is politically correct across the board, he also changes “Injun Joe” to “Indian Joe” and “half-breed” to “half-blood.”)

So, readers of Gibbon’s edition will get a virtual Huckleberry Finn. The unexpurgated voyage of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and the runaway slave Jim on the Big River is a voyage of discovery, not just geographically but psychologically. Huck comes to respect Jim as a human being and to recognize — in a late-adolescent sort of way — the intrinsic evil of slavery. To miss that point is to miss everything.

Gibbon’s redactions will lead to exactly that. He says he has removed a trip wire. Twain, of course, wanted his readers to trip. His language is the authentic vernacular of pre Civil War Missouri. He used the ugly n-word casually and that very casualness illustrates the profound immorality of slavery. We should read the Constitution and Huckleberry Finn in the same way, in the unsanitized original and with an unsentimental and unforgiving eye, a jeweler’s eye.

With the actual, not the redacted, language in front of us, we might all learn something.

Judge William C. Whitbeck is one of 28 judges on the Michigan Court of Appeals. A Kalamazoo native, he is a graduate of the Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and of the University of Michigan Law School. He and his wife Stephanie live in a completely renovated 130-year-old home in downtown Lansing. He can be reached at