Everyone has been talking about the treatment of a certain offensive word in Huckleberry Finn.
I hesitate to use it here because I worry about what sort of traffic it might drive to my blog. My politics are decidedly liberal. I have no wish to appear in the search result of someone hateful.
I hesitate even to write about it. I have not lived with this word in the way a person of color in America lives with it. To claim so much as an opinion about it feels presumptuous.
As a writer and as a reader I feel I have some right to consider it. I think of books, other than Huckleberry Finn, that reference things which offend or which disturb. The Reader comes to mind, with its very sympathetic tale of an ex-Nazi and her boy lover in post-war Germany. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I am currently reading Elizabeth George’s This Body of Death; she is an extraordinarily talented novelist, but her retelling, detail by excrutiating detail, of the real murder of three year old Jamie Bulger in Britain is too much for me. No one speaks of banning these books, or others like them. It is this word, this one awful word and the guilt it connotes, that puts Twain in the crosshairs time after time.
I have written things other people would likely condemn. Dark things, ugly things, because darkness and ugliness lay claim to life. I wrote a poem nearly fifteen years ago called “Light Railing In”, about my daily train ride into the city where I was then working. I wrote that the light drained from the sky, and the train sank into darkness, as I neared my destination. It happened that I disliked my job and that I started feeling miserable as I got closer to the skyscraper where my desk waited. But a reader pointed out to me that the poem could be interpreted as racist, that some would think I was referencing the mostly African-American neighborhood through which the train ran. I saw that what she said was true, although I am not a racist. I did not rewrite. It said what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it. I cannot be responsible for misperceptions.
Europeans recognize an artist’s droit morale, or moral right, to create. To interfere with the creation is to violate this right. American copyright laws come close, but do not fully capture, this concept.
Because I work in words, I believe that no words should be forbidden. But in truth, I find this hard to reconcile with my belief, equally strong, that individuals should be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of color, race, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. There is no getting around the fact that words may become weapons. In the hands of an evil man a word may become evil.
I would like to suggest that, in the case of this word, we might beat the weapon into plowshare. But I am not naive.
Lawrence Joseph, a lawyer, raises the word like a flag in his poem, “Sand N —.”
In the house in Detroit
in a room of shadows
when grandma reads her Arabic newspaper
it is difficult for me to follow her
word by word from right to left
and I do not understand
why she smiles about the Jews
who won’t do business in Beirut
“because the Lebanese
are more Jew than Jew,”
or whether to believe her
that if I pray
to the holy card of Our Lady of Lebanon
I will share the miracle.
Lebanon is everywhere
in the house: in the kitchen
of steaming pots, leg of lamb
in the oven, plates of kousa,
hushwee rolled in cabbage,
dishes of olives, tomatoes, onions,
roasted chicken, and sweets;
at the card table in the sunroom
where grandpa teaches me
to wish the dice across the backgammon board
to the number I want;
Lebanon of mountains and sea,
of pine and almond trees,
of cedars in the service
of Solomon, Lebanon
of Babylonians, Phoenicians, Arabs, Turks
and Byzantines, of the one-eyed
monk, saint Maron,
in whose rite I am baptized;
Lebanon of my mother
warning my father not to let
the children hear,
of my brother who hears
and from whose silence
I know there is something
I will never know; Lebanon
of grandpa giving me my first coin
holding my face in his hands,
kissing me and promising me
the whole world.
. . . .