Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Huckleberry Finn, the "N" Word, and Hillbillies

An edition of Huckleberry Finn from NewSouth Books is going to change the word, nigger, to slave--as in Slave Jim, and the word, injun to Native American. I guess that means Injun Joe is going to now be Native American Joe. Hmm...

Fully realizing the power and the ugliness of that "N" word, I still think this is a mistake. The editors are saying they're doing this to make the book more accessible to schools. I guess some school districts have been banning the book, or making it so it's not obligatory, just optional reading. I didn't know that was happening but doing that is just as stupid as changing the word. Huckleberry Finn is not a racist book. It actually preaches the exact opposite, that we are all alike and equal. If people running a school district don't know that, they don't know much and shouldn't be running a school.

Boy oh boy, the South keeps getting us in a pickle, doesn't it? Our country continues to be racist almost 150 years after the Civil War, and we continue to try to fight it by doing goofy stuff like this. The country gets into a big stink over this, when instead the liberals should be fighting tooth and nail when the courts start thinking about rolling back affirmative action.

I find all this so funny. I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city just this side of the Mason-Dixon Line. Cincinnati is called The Queen City, and also the Gateway to the West. In the olden days, poor blacks (during what is now called The Great Migration) and poor whites funneled through Cincinnati from the South and Appalachia to northern cities to work in factories. They came through Cincinnati on their way to Detroit and Chicago. Some stayed. There's a lot of Southern influence there, along with the Old World German, too. Racism there is right on the surface. When I was a kid the KKK was pretty prominent. Every Christmas it would lobby to put up a cross on Fountain Square, the center of the downtown area. When you'd drive up I-71 toward Columbus, there was a farm right next to the interstate the flew the Confederate flag, had it painted on one side of the barn roof, and had a burnt cross facing the highway. Now that's racism.

Anyway, in Ohio, people in the north look down on us from the south. We're the poor relations. We're hillbillies. A good friend of mine from Toledo teases me about the way I talk--pronouncing words like warsh for wash, and saying I'm going to warsh my haid instead of wash my hair. Even here in Boston, I'm friendly with someone from Cleveland, and when I told her I was from Cincinnati she immediately dismissed me. I forgot exactly what she said, but it wasn't nice.

Just last week, we were having dinner with friends of Sue's who live in Athens, Ohio, where I went to school. They're transplanted there, and both work for the university, one as a professor and the other as an administrator. Now, Athens is in southeastern Ohio, and in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Talk about hillbillies. But it's a university town and very friendly and laid back, and we were all laughing and talking about the same people we knew, and Sue mentioned this business about the north looking down on the south there. And before they could stop themselves, their mouths were taking them down the road that ended with the word, hillbillies, as in, "Oh yes, they call them hillbillies," and they stopped themselves quick and shot me a look and I just smiled and nodded. These people weren't racist, although they knew the word, hillbilly, is derogatory. Hilljack is probably even more so. And then there's white trash. They all mean the same. And I've been called all three, mostly based on my accent. And as I said, these people that night were no more racists than I'm a piece of trash, white, black, Southern, or otherwise.

I keep saying it: This country has to address the racism that's present here, but you have to really face it. What I find interesting is, if you read Malcolm X, you'll find that he eventually came to the conclusion that people aren't racist, that it is really our society that is. I tend to agree with him.

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