The Unspeakable, in Its Jammies

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

by Michael Chabon

Hey, remember the guy in the university town who thought it was a good idea to go through Huckleberry Finn and replace the word "nigger" with something less offensive? Not the dude at Auburn. The other one. The one writing this sentence.

Tom Sawyer was bedtime reading for me and my two youngest kids (son and daughter, 7 and 9) at the start of last summer. Of course we all loved it. It has some slow bits, and some prolonged bouts of humor (Tom's lovesickness, his punctilio about make-believe) that have to have felt at least a little labored even back in 1876, when it often took weeks or even months for a punchline to arrive. But it's exciting and funny and often surprisingly tender, even capital-R Romantic, and the classic bits—the fence, the Bible study tickets, the cave, the murder—appear to have lost none of their power to delight and scare children who dwell in a world of childhood so alien from that of Tom and Huck, half-feral in their liberty, alongside whom my own children seem like dogs in a run, no longer even straining at their cable.

Reading Tom Sawyer occupied the entire summer, and during that time I don't remember wrestling at all with the question of what to say, out loud, with my actual lips and tongue, when my eyes arrived at that strange little word. A cursory search of Google Books suggests that it makes a total of only 10 appearances in the entire book, which is, after all, not told by a backcountry boy in his own dialect but narrated, with a great deal of mock-decorum, in the third person. Ten is probably fairly close to the number of times that I have said "nigger" in my life, never once without some kind of ironizing or sterilizing quotation marks of tone fitted carefully around it, and, somewhat humiliatingly given the choice made by Professor Gribben of Auburn, which I heartily and firmly, piling on, condemn for its cowardice, mealy-mouthedness, and all-consuming fallaciousness, I recall that in those fleeting spots where I encountered the word I would substitute, without missing a beat or losing any literal meaning, "slave." It was no big thing. The kids had no idea that a switcheroo had been run on them. But then we finished Tom Sawyer, and they had loved it, and most especially the character of Huckleberry Finn, so much that they begged me to carry on to the eponymous sequel, starting the very next night.

"I don't know," I said. "It's a little bit more of a grownup book."

It had been at least 15 years since I'd last read it, and my memories of it were pretty vague. I was kind of repeating the conventional wisdom. (Which turned out, in my view, to be questionable—huge stretches of Huckleberry Finn don't feel all that different, apart from the narrative voice, from Tom Sawyer, especially toward the end after Tom and his punctilio make their annoying return. The Duke and Dauphin, and the feuding families, complicate the book in ways that my kids needed help to understand. And then there are a few incredibly profound passages, above all the famous one in which Huck wrestles with the situational evil of absolute good as he determines to help Jim get free). But I knew—half-recollected, half-intuited—that there was some thorniness, that something in the book was going to bedevil bedtime.

We encountered the first of what must be at least 200 instances of the word "nigger" on page 6, along with Jim himself. Now I remembered!

I flipped ahead, finding the word on almost every other page, twice or three times a page. The book was lousy with it.

"Guys," I said, putting it down. "We need to talk about this."

I explained to them that because this book was written in Huck's own voice, and because in the time and place of its setting people of both races commonly referred to black people as "niggers," and because there were a number of black characters, major and minor, in the book, I was going to be obliged to say, or not to say, that word, a great many times. I explained that saying the word made me extremely uncomfortable, that it was not a word I ever used, that some black people still used it sometimes to refer to each other, but that was importantly different, and that black people I had known were just as uncomfortable using the word around white people as white people were using it around them. I told them about my childhood friend Harry, mentioned in a prior post, who when discussing the Richard Pryor album Bicentennial Nigger with me, a fellow Pryor fan but, unlike Harry, a white boy, used to refer to it by the codename "Bice."

Next I reminded them that Mark Twain was a great artist, a moral man and, furthermore, an accurate writer. I said that as a writer myself the idea of somebody taking the words I had worked so hard to get absolutely correct and spatchcocking in whatever nonsense made them comfortable made me insane. Then I asked them what they thought I ought to do, whenever I arrived at the word in the course of the next few months. I told them how I had substituted "slave" while we were reading Tom Sawyer, but that in this book the word was going to mean so vastly much more, and less, than that.

"You know what word I'm uncomfortable saying?" said my daughter, the nine-year-old. "Negro."

I remembered the earliest days of my consciousness of black people, when that was still, fadingly, a proper term. It had long since acquired distinct overtones of offensiveness, though it was not remotely, I thought, taboo. I could say it without feeling like I was licking a battery.

"Negro," I said. I really did not know what else to do. "All right, let's give that a try." So we did, and stuck with it, and it kind of worked, but the every time I said "negro" I wondered if they, my new companions in bad faith, were feeling the acid charge of the true word in their minds.

"Hey, Dad," the little guy asked me at one point. "How come if you can't say you-know-what, when you were reading Tom Sawyer you kept saying INJUN Joe, because that's offensive, too."

"Because I'm an ass," I said. Only I didn't say "ass."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/01/the-unspeakable-in-its-jammies/69369/