Thoughts on Historical Censorship

22 Mar

by Becky Johnston-

Historical context is the favorite cliché of the historian, yet its constant use does not diminish its importance.  As an undergrad, I wrote a paper about the early writings on Cahokia Mounds. I could have initiated my paper with the multitude of books about mound builders and what they said, but there was an important concept behind these authors’ thoughts: historical context.  As I stated in my paper, to claim simply that they were racists would have been an understatement. My point was the purpose behind this blatant racism: the authors saw their views as scientific reasoning, which can be studied in their writings to gain insight about the authors and their respective societal influences. It would not have made sense for me to have taken these works out of their historical context, placing them in the world of today.

There is a current controversy that pertains to this issue: the censorship of Mark Twains’ Huckleberry Finn.  There are two words in question here, both being obviously horrid and echoing thoughts on Anglo supremacy and racist mindsets. One of these words should stay buried and forgotten as the NAACP did in 2007. This has not stopped its use, though its meaning has changed over time. Both are obvious slang, but the other hasn’t received the media attention for it is considered more of a sign of the uneducated mispronunciation.  The implications behind their use in this particular book do not have the same connotation as they do today. But to change these two words in question to something else, takes away from their meanings and the reason Mark Twain decided to use them in the first place.

The theme of this story is much more than the words of which it consists.  The meaning implied will not be skewed, though, with the removal of such wordage, but it could be diminished.  As Larry Wilmore, “Senior Black Correspondent” for The Daily Show stated (humorously), “slave is an occupation,” and not a proper substitute.  As does this word, the other euphemism, also conveys the ignorance in its usage.

They are harsh, disgusting words, but they are part of our shared past that have intense meaning to many people. Changing them to anything else, changes the point Mark Twain was trying to make, yet it is not invisible. These words will not suddenly disappear from the world’s vocabulary if they are censored from Mark Twain’s writings. But I think there is a more pertinent question that this talk of censorship has created: What will be next? The point of this particular censorship is to “whitewash” the stories so they can be brought back to school for children to read. But what other literary works can be edited for the safety of our children and who gets to decide what is the best way to do this. The world is full of horrible events done by horrible people. Some would like to forget about them to move past them, but what this does is to negate their suffering, or, even worse, their existence. This editing alters the cultural and historical setting of the story, changing the impact it has on the reader. This is how it was, this is how it should be read.  Censorship is not how we protect anyone from anything; it is only how we perpetuate ignorance.


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