Last night, right when I was about to go to sleep, I got a call from CNN's 'Anderson Cooper 360.' Well, I think they call it 'AC360' now, but who's keeping track? At any rate, they wanted to talk about a book that most of us have heard about called 'Huckleberry Finn,' written by the late Mark Twain.
My trusty assistant, who effectively runs my life, gave me the news: "They want you to talk about the book 'Huckleberry Finn' and whether or not it's good that the latest version takes out the n-word. They're surprised that you, as a professor, are okay with the change."
I paused for a second and then asked, "They do know I'm black, right?"
Actually, I could never say that being black is a condition for finding the change acceptable, since several of my academic colleagues have been looking at me cross-eyed. But before I became a professor, I was a little black boy in public school who didn't enjoy hearing my white English teacher recite the n-word 219 times to make a point. Did I need to hear the word over and over again to get the point of the book? Did it make sense that my white friends, unable to understand the broader lessons being shared by this verbal abuse, were reciting words from the book in order to provoke me into a fight? Perhaps my principal would have taken all this into account before suspending me for knocking someone out for repeating that word in my presence in a derogatory way.
Here's the deal: I would not, for one second, advocate for the idea of some government agency making a law stating that the raw version of 'Huckleberry Finn' should not be available for those who wish to read it. But when it comes to the version of the book that is forced down the throat of black schoolchildren, parents should at least have a choice.
In nearly every form of artistic expression, the concept of age appropriateness come into play. We don't play music on the radio with profanity, no matter how relevant the language is to making the point of the artist. The politically relevant hip-hop classic 'F*ck the Police' by NWA would never be played in its rawest form for kids in a public school, in spite of the fact that this song was released right before the L.A. riots and reflects the dramatic and storied relationship between black men and the police. Although the four-letter word in the chorus is relevant to making the artists' point and would be perfect for a Hip-Hop, Race and Politics class, it would not be acceptable for the song to be played in a public school.
Those who stand adamantly against any type of filtering for any art form in any context for any age group have a long fight ahead of them, since we are consistently deciding which movies, songs and video games are appropriate for our children. There are a multitude of ways to teach the atrocities of slavery to young people without using Huck Finn, the same way I can teach young people about the horrors of rape without forcing them to watch a rape in process.
So, the bottom line appears to be this: Those who've chosen to modify the original form of 'Huckleberry Finn' are making the same business decision as any studio that releases a made-for-TV version of a film or a version of a song for the radio. By creating the clean version of the art form, the market is expanded and more copies of the work can be sold. The business model and logic are the same, even if the art happens to be 125 years old.
We'll be discussing the topic again on CNN's 'Joy Behar Show' tonight at 9 p.m., I'll be on with my good friend Marc Lamont Hill, who happens to disagree with me. But brothers can disagree without either one of us being completely correct. His points on freedom of speech are certainly valid and relevant, but Marc also doesn't have teenage children.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition and a Scholarship in Action resident of the Institute for Black Public Policy. To have Dr. Boyce's commentary delivered to your e-mail, please click here.