Saturday, January 8, 2011

Censorship The Hall Of Fame Way

Did you hear about the new edition of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" in which there is no evidence that Mark Twain ever used the word "nigger"? If seeing that word here--in any context--bothers you, stop reading this now, go out and buy the latest Bowdlerized edition of a literary classic, and have a nice life.

This travesty was engineered by an Auburn University professor who worried that the mere appearance of the word--more than 200 times in "Huckleberry Finn"--was causing teachers and students to shy away from reading the book. By replacing "nigger" with "slave," he thought the prospect of tackling the book wouldn't be as daunting to future readers. I'm not going to get into a philosophical discussion of censorship here, but for an excellent article, follow this link:
www.nytimes.com/2011/01/07/books/07huck.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=huck%20finn&st=cse

The writer, Michiko Kakutani, does a fine job of putting the Twain mangling in a perspective beyond the fact that nobody has any right to change a word of someone else's writing. As Kakutani notes, calling the character Jim a "slave" instead of a "nigger" is doing him a disservice. He has run away and is enjoying his freedom, so to call him a slave "effectively labels him as property, as the very thing he is trying to escape." Therefore the professor's translation perverts the meaning of the book he is trying to get people to read. That is typical of the folly of censorship.

This news reminded me of a blog I've been intending to write for a couple of months, and which is now much more relevant. I experienced censorship in the final piece of writing I did for the Hall of Fame--and guess what word it involved? Oh yeah.

The article, about Jackie Robinson's court-martial, appeared in the "Fall" issue of "Memories & Dreams," the Hall of Fame's official magazine. Briefly, in case you haven't heard the story, Lieutenant Jackie Robinson was stationed in Texas while awaiting an overseas assignment in 1944, when he was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus as directed by the driver. Back at his base, he was subjected to further racist actions, tried to protest, and was arrested and put on trial for insubordination. Though clearly the victim, he had to spend months with the threat of imprisonment over his head before being cleared of all charges.

My article covered Robinson's experiences with racism throughout his military service. The word "nigger" appeared in three places in the article I submitted for publication. The editor and I discussed the possibility of tinkering with that word. I urged him to leave it in, but if he had to remove it, publish it as "n-----" so there would be no doubt to attentive readers about what word had been used. It was essential, I told the editor, to be as explicit as possible about the exact abuse Robinson experienced, in order to understand why he fought back in the way that he did. The third occurrence was the most important: Robinson's trial testimony about his grandmother's definition of the word.

The first instance was about a 1943 incident at Fort Riley, Kansas, when Robinson, his battalion's morale officer, called the major who could do something about the segregated seating at the post exchange. The major, assuming Robinson, as an officer, was white, responded with a cliche of the time, asking, "How would you like to have your wife sitting next to a nigger?" Robinson unleashed a high-volume verbal blast and followed up by going to the base commander. The major was reprimanded, and the seating problem taken care of.

That's how I reported it in my version. In the published version, it read, "How would you like your wife sitting next to a (______)?" The reader should be able to guess what the word is based on Robinson's reaction, but that isn't the point. That mysterious underlined word could be something else unflattering. By chickening out about using the word here, the Hall of Fame's editor (perhaps told to by someone higher up on the HOF's power pyramid) made the decision that readers might be offended by the word, or the assumption that they would be offended.

There are many ironies about that position, but I'll mention just one here: Jackie Robinson risked his skin to help future generations of blacks be immune from irrational assaults including the verbal racism of that word, with the result in this case that the entity which honors him (the HOF put a big statue of Robinson in the front lobby a couple of years ago) has deemed the word so offensive that it can't even be viewed by the almost entirely white constituency of the membership program through which the magazine is distributed. The underlying effect of this paternalistic policy is that today's readers are deprived of the blunt shock of having the word directed at them, the only way we can sense even a fraction of the feeling it must have provoked in Jackie Robinson and others of his generation.

The second usage of that word in my article came in the section on the fateful bus ride and arrest. As he was being taken back to the base, Robinson was confident that he hadn't done anything wrong and that, as an officer, he would be treated with the respect due him once he arrived at headquarters. Thus his renewed anger upon arrival, when a lowly private asked the MP escort this was "the nigger lieutenant" who was causing trouble.

It was a rude awakening for Robinson to realize that racist instincts trumped military protocol. He continued to fight back. The readers of my article had a slightly gentler awakening, as the text referred to "the (racial epithet) lieutenant". Well, it's clearer here than the first time what word is being used, which raises two questions. First, in their attempts to protect the reader from seeing "nigger" on the page, why did the Hall of Fame use two different methods of presenting the missing word? Using two representations suggests that two different terms were used; printing it the same way would make it clear that it was the same word, and obviously "racial epithet" leaves little doubt what the actual word was. Hence the second question: if seeing "racial epithet" is going to make the average reader think "oh, that means 'nigger,'" how is that a less traumatic experience than seeing the actual word itself printed on the page? Why be coy about it?

After I submitted the article, I knew that those two references together mattered less than the final usage. It was taken from the trial transcript, when Robinson testified in his own defense. A lawyer asked him why he objected to being called a "nigger". Here is his explanation: "My grandmother gave me a good definition. She was a slave, and she said the definition of the word was a low, uncouth person, and pertains to no one in particular; but I don't consider that I am low and uncouth. . .I told the caption, 'If you call me a nigger, I might have to say the same thing to you.'"

That's beautiful. For one thing, it is relevant to Michiko Kakutani's statement that "today nigger is used by many rappers, who have reclaimed the word from its ugly past." My sense is that the rappers (and comedians) who use the term also have in mind people who are low and uncouth.
More beautiful was Robinson's way of turning the racism back on itself. By that definition, he asserted the semantic right to call a white person a "nigger," too. All men are created equal, after all. He also claimed a degree of immunity from hearing the term, because he knew it didn't truly apply to him. It was offensive because it accused him of being something he wasn't, not something he was.

Robinson's grandmother's definition was the most important thing in my article, the one thing a reader might take away from the piece even if the details of what happened were forgotten. It was a unique perspective, and it explained a lot about how Robinson's character developed to the point where he was able to absorb the racial abuse he experienced in 1947 with patience. He knew they weren't talking about him, only to him.

What did the Hall of Fame do with this splendid definition? They deleted it. It wasn't a matter of space. I had brought the piece in almost exactly on the usual word count, and they replaced the definition with an irrelevant sidebar listing the five African Americans who debuted in the major leagues in 1947. The article was about 1943-44.

I was surprised and offended by the decision to omit that paragraph from the article. What were they afraid of? Are the sensibilities of Hall of Fame donors so delicate that they can't be exposed to a different perspective on a troubling matter? Were they afraid that readers might start going around their neighborhoods and workplaces looking for low, uncouth people so they could call them "niggers" and see what happened? Were they afraid that the mere presence of the word on a magazine page would cause donors to withdraw their financial support for the institution? In a publication devoted to "Character" and "Courage," in an article about a man who displayed as much character and courage as anybody we can name (that's why they have the statue!), the editors didn't have either the character or the courage to say, "This is what Jackie Robinson said. If we're supposed to be inspired by his character as much as by what he did on the field--and we are--then we have to honor his words, and we have to try to appreciate as much as we can what he went through so long ago, in such a different time, to get us where we are today."

Unfortunately, that view didn't prevail, if it was suggested at all. So the Hall of Fame "members" lost out on the article's most important perspective. My readers deserve better.

Here's another perspective. In 1991 I was walking down Cannery Row in Monterey, CA, minding my own business. A delivery truck stopped in the middle of the road, and the driver, an African American, yelled at me, "Hey! You from Cincinnati?" I was wearing my Reds cap to honor the Reds as defending World Series champions. The only taint on the team's glorious year had been the allegation that the owner, Marge Schott, had referred to star outfielders Eric Davis and Dave Parker as "my million-dollar niggers."

"No!" I yelled back.

"Do you ever go to Cincinnati?"

"I could."

"Well, if you do--tell Marge Schott she can call me anything she wants if she gives me a million bucks." He laughed heartily and drove away, leaving me laughing my ass off. He understood. He wouldn't have driven off the road if he had seen "nigger" in my article.

People understand. But the Hall of Fame doesn't even understand the history it is mandated to preserve.

5 comments:

Pete said...

Right on, Gabe! It's getting to the point at which history is being rewritten in the name of political correctness. Excellent commentary!

Chris Wertz said...

Great job, Gabe.

Perry Barber said...

Fie on the editor who omitted such an essential paragraph in your story about Jackie Robinson, Gabriel! There's a line from Shakespeare's "Henry V": "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." Substitute "editors" for "lawyers" (and "fire" for the politically incorrect and inflammatory "kill," o the irony,) and that pretty much sums up how I feel about editors, yours and mine.

Once, an editor inserted an entire paragraph HE, not I, wrote into a story I'd turned in about NHL referee Kerry Fraser. When I saw the finished product with an entire paragraph inserted for purely gratuitous purposes that the editor, not I, had written, I read him the riot act! But the most egregious example of completely unnecessary and overzealous editing in my obscure writing career was when I wrote this sentence for a profile of legendary NBA referee Mendy Rudolph: "He put the milk carton back in the hall closet instead of the refrigerator." When the magazine in which it was published came out, this is how the sentence read: "He put the milk carton back in the hall closet instead of the frig."

I'm serious: "...instead of the frig." Not even "fridge"; "f-r-i-g." It's not quite "(racial epithet)" for the actual word Robinson chose to use, but still... You do a great job unedited and unexpurgated, Gabriel. Thank you for calling 'em as you see 'em.

Marc Schneider said...

In fairness, the Hall was between a rock and a hard place with respect to using the n-word. If they used it, they would have been criticized from both sides of the political spectrum. Although I agree with your analysis and that the word was necessary in the context in which you used it, I can't really blame the editor for deciding that discretion was the better part of valor.

Sasha said...
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