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Op-Ed

Oskar and Huck

When Steven Spielberg was approached by NBC to broadcast his masterpiece film, Schindler’s List, he had two conditions. First, no commercial interruptions during the entire three and one-half hour running time. Second, the movie must be uncut, not one frame left out or altered. NBC agreed and the show aired on Feb. 23rd, 1997.

Even though Spielberg warned before the movie started about its disturbing content, some potential offendees watched anyway, and then complained. One was Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), who issued a release saying:

“Network television had sunk to an all-time low. I cringe when I realize that there were children all across this nation watching this program,. They were exposed to the violence of multiple gunshot head wounds, vile language, full frontal nudity and irresponsible sexual activity,” and should not have aired, “on a Sunday evening during a family time.”

Well, Tom, we really don’t care if you were offended by what scholars regard as the most accurate depiction of the Holocaust ever made. If you were titillated by the full frontal nudity of people walking into a gas chamber, or offended by the profanity, or shocked by the violence, then cover your eyes and ears and mouth. It’s not about you. It’s about one of the most horrific periods in history, and a man, Oskar Schindler, who, as part of that history, goes from being detached and uncaring to being consumed with grief over what he had witnessed. An edited version like the one Cobun suggested would surely have diluted the power of this film. He later apologized for his comments and acknowledged the film’s importance.

A few years ago we had another crusader who wanted to protect our sensibilities; especially those of our innocent children. Enter Auburn University’s Alan Gribben, who authored a new release of Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and, in the doing, removed 219 uses of the “N” word from the original work. In Gribben’s defense, his sanitized version was done at the behest of many teachers who wanted to have the book available for the classroom, but one that would be less offensive to parents and students, especially black students.

With all due respect to Dr. Gribben, he has destroyed the whole point of the book. Huck came to find that, contrary to the ubiquitous and hate-filled racism of the day, an escaped slave, a black man, was a real human being, worthy of respect and deserving of freedom. This is a book that exposes the ignorance of that racism and transforms Huck, much like it transformed Oskar Schindler, from a bystander into a participant doing his best to help fight man’s inhumanity to man.

No, removing the N-word from Huckleberry Finn would be like removing the material Senator Coburn objected to from Schindler’s List. The meaning would be lost. And the true suffering of the African-Americans and the Jews would soon be forgotten.

This dilemma was not lost on Huck:

“It would get all around, that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was to ever see anybody from that town again, I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That’s just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don’t want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide it, it ain’t no disgrace.”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has become one the most banned and censored book of all time. It was highly controversial even when it first published in 1884. The first to ban it was the Concord Public Library in 1885. More objections and bans and censorship of the book based on race and civil rights has continued ever since.

Nonetheless, the importance of this book cannot be overstated. “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ Ernest Hemingway famously declared in 1935. “It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Most other writers agree.

Mark Twain was a genius. You don’t fuck with a genius.

 

This is a revised and expanded version of the original which was published in the Joplin Globe on January 10, 2011

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