Once I got in trouble for satirically agreeing with the publisher’s plan to make “Huckleberry Finn” more receptive to modern audiences. The new version was to change Mark Twain’s n-words and his Injuns to “slave” and “indian” respectively.
In my column, I’ll go even further down that slippery slope, sweeping away bad grammar, softening many other rough edges, including references to slavery, and inserting other outrageously politically correct touches. I mocked that it was necessary. My revised version had Huck and Jim talking like they were sipping brandy and his snifter in a London club.
The whole thing was so ridiculous that I couldn’t imagine anyone taking me seriously. But when he started reading some of the comments, emails and online, he realized he had overestimated part of his readership. In this case, it included online readers across the country.
They accused me of everything from a socialist to a Nazi. One man wrote: Bill White, of course. Meanwhile, Bill has to rewrite all the obnoxious publications like Frankenstein, His Sons and Daughters, Anna Karenina, and Hard Times. It would be crazy not to read something that pisses you off. No, you should impose your idea of ”offensive” on the rest of us instead. There is no way the Nazis had the same idea in his 1944. Burn anything offensive!”
The other day I was reminded of a 2011 column that Turner Classic Movies ran “You Can’t Fool an Honest Man” starring WC Fields and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. The movie is interesting. But even some of the dialogue between Fields and Eddie Anderson, best known as Jack Benny’s sidekick Rochester, and the blackface scene involving McCarthy, it’s chilling.
This does not mean that the film should no longer be screened or should be censored. But that’s why the TCM host addresses these issues when introducing and closing the film afterwards. A product of a time when these were taken for granted, they are not today. There are countless other examples in every aspect of art, politics and life.
Context is everything. This gives us a better understanding of people’s past and present behavior. Without it, they are often incomprehensible, if not frightening.
Context is why Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece, not an embarrassment. must be explained.
I can cite a long list of examples where context and nuance are lost or ignored. We’ll start with most of the highly misleading political ads on TV that will be levied on us leading up to Election Day.
Context is why a constitutional amendment written about militias and muzzle loaders should not justify people today owning AK-47s and high-capacity magazines. Context is why it’s so horrifying to see a crowd sticking their right arms in the air at a rally of Donald Trump and Doug Mastriano. That is why it is inviting and dangerous.
If we want our children to learn from the mistakes of the past, teachers should be encouraged to teach them the real history of this country, not the sanitized history. And that’s why efforts to clean school reading lists and even math curricula from anything that’s even slightly offensive or “woke” are so misguided.
The Fluggerville Public Library in Texas posted a photo on Facebook last year to dramatize the point. “Here’s a before and after shot of what a single shelving unit in the library’s teen space would look like if we removed all books with content that might offend someone,” the caption read. “Of the 159 books, 10 remain on the shelves. It’s been deleted, but in deleting those books, I also deleted examples of friendship, love, courage, creativity, faith, forgiveness, reality, resilience, humor, and history.”
This does not mean that families cannot decide for themselves which books to let their children read or not. But I suggest this: we need to trust our teachers to help our children understand literature, history, and other important subjects in context. You have to trust your kids with help to handle it. We need to stop injecting political paranoia and dysfunction into school districts.
Our world is really complicated. Some of us may want to narrow our horizons to shallow black and white so that we don’t have to think too deeply, or to work well with our political base, but that’s not a way of life, it’s a way of life. Certainly not a way to govern either. We need to get our kids to dig deeper. It reminds me of an exchange between Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
Bergen: “I have a good heart for…”
McCarthy: “Why not?”
To contact Bill White: email@example.com his twitter handle