A Nation of Cowards

Jamelle writes:


Erasing "nigger" from Huckleberry Finn—or ignoring our failures—doesn't change anything. It doesn't provide racial enlightenment, or justice, and it won't shield anyone from the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. All it does is feed the American aversion to history and reflection. Which is a shame. If there's anything great about this country, it's in our ability to account for and overcome our mistakes. Peddling whitewashed ignorance diminishes America as much as it does our intellect.

I'm obviously not Mark Twain, but having written a book, I can only imagine how hard Twain worked. I would be incensed if someone went through my book and took out all the "niggers" or "bitches" or "motherfuckers." It's really just a hair short of some stranger, in their preening ignorance, putting their hands on your kid. 

To me that's the worst part; surely we are, as Jamelle says, peddling whitewashed ignorance, but much worse we're actually peddling it at Twain's expense. I think the worse part of censoring Twain, is that it's a shocking act of disrespect toward the writer, executed by people who claim to hold up his legacy.

I am remembered to the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who aptly noted that when people whitewash Robert E. Lee, and claim he was anti-slavery, what they are implicitly claiming is that the actual Robert E. Lee—one of the greatest generals of the past two centuries—isn't good enough. 

This is actually much worse, because the invocation of nigger by Twain is not a moral failing. But because of our needs, Twain isn't good enough. Because we can't handle the story of who we were, and evidently who we are, Twain must be summoned up from the dead and, all against himself, submitted before the edits of amateurs.This is our system of fast-food education laid bare: Children are roaming the halls singing "Sexy Bitch," while their neo-Confederate parents are plotting to chop the penis off Michelangelo's David, and clamoring for Gatsby and Daisy to be reunited. 

Let us all live in a world of warm snugglies. Let the air-conditioning anesthesia sprawl free. May the flowers of happiness multiply out. May Mark Twain's ghost haunt us all.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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