Beatty’s satirical reach goes deep. Foy Cheshire, at a meeting of The Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, tells us a story:
“One night, not long ago,” Foy said, “I tried to read this book, Huckleberry Finn, to my grandchildren, but I couldn’t get past page six because the books fraught with the ‘n-word’. And although they are the deepest-thinking, combat-ready eight- and ten-year-olds I know, I knew my babies weren’t ready to comprehend Huckleberry Finn on its own merits. That’s why I took the liberty to rewrite Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Where the repugnant ‘n-word’ occurs, I replaced it with ‘warrior’ and the word ‘slave’ with ‘dark-skinned volunteer’.”
“That’s right!” shouted the crowd.
“I also improved Jim’s diction, rejiggered the plot line a bit, and retitled the book The Pejorative-Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit” (94-95).
I love this. Not only because it satirizes petitions to remove books like Huck Finn from libraries and classrooms but because, in the context of Beatty’s entire novel, it cannot help but emphasize the irony inherent to revisions like Foy’s.
For instance, the n-word (says Foy) is used by Twain 219 times in that novel, but if it’s used fewer than 219 times in The Sellout, I’d be shocked. Context and intention differ. But that’s Beatty’s point, I think, and that’s what makes the passage so funny. The n-word actually critiques itself in this novel. It’s a kind of framing device.
It reminds me of Danez Smith’s recent poetry collection, homie. When you open the book, the first thing you encounter is a disclaimer about the title. Smith says, “this book was titled homie because i don’t want non-black people to say my nig out loud. this books is really titled my nig.” Then there’s a whole new title page with My Nig.
But it’s fascinating too. I’ve never taught Huck Finn, but as a white guy, I think I’d be uncomfortable, even though it’s an indispensable contribution to nineteenth-century American literature, just as Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black Man (1859) is crucial reading. I don’t think I could bring myself to read passages that use the n-word aloud to my students, even with historical context. I’ve discussed this with lots of teachers, white and Black, and opinions vary widely, depending on one’s sense of fidelity to the text, history, and the people represented on the page. But if the student is reading the actual text, I’m content to let the pejoratives live on the page while destroying them in the air.
How to teach Beatty though? Or Smith? As a white dude, I mean. I’d love to teach them both. What I love about the question itself is that I know both Beatty and Smith are having a laugh about the exact challenge this poses for academics. But the challenge is what makes it so interesting.
Foy’s story reminds me of the Jefferson Bible. Thomas Jefferson took a razor to all the miracles and supernatural bits of the New Testament, leaving just the moral(?) teachings of the Nazarene. So long as the source text isn’t erased permanently, as an act of censure, in the process, this kind of literary play can push a reader’s analysis to places otherwise unexplored.