Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What The Huck Did They Do To Mark Twain Classic? (June 15, 2012)

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” ― Ray Bradbury
About eighteen months ago, a debate took place at a Canarsie elementary school over a book of poems when parents objected to some content, such as an anti-war poem with a line that President Bush “loves war so much he gets an erection,” and another about a crack-addicted hooker performing lewd acts.
City Councilman Charles Barron, who wrote the forward to the 2006 collection authored by his goddaughter, Tylibah Washington, defended the book, noting it “speaks to the experiences and struggles of inner city youth.” He subsequently acknowledged portions of it might be inappropriate for pre-teens.
Nevertheless, in a follow-up, Barron, who is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for the newly-created 8th Congressional seat in Brooklyn, objected to editing the poetry book, yet called for removing Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from classrooms because the “despicable N” word is used numerous times.
This argument subsequently resurfaced when a publisher issued a revised edition of “Huck Finn” and changed more than 200 mentions of the “N” word, plus a smaller number from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and replaced them with the word “slaves.” Other alterations included “Injun Joe” changed to “Indian Joe” and “half-breed” to “half-blood,” presumably to avoid an added chorus of disapproval from Native Americans in search of equal treatment.
When political correctness is used to alter celebrated works that contain conventional language and attitudes at the time they were published, it’s deceptive and disgraceful, no matter how repugnant some might perceive them. 
When “Huck Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” were published, respectively in 1885 and 1876, the “N” word was not necessarily uttered with malice, but rather out of habit. As a result, censoring the word today dilutes and misrepresents the original narratives.
Rather than revise the books, perhaps it would be more practical — and educational — to explain to students the context of the period when the words were written, so they could have a better understanding of slurs or other offensive content. 
A Twain scholar opposed to the edits, said, “The word is terrible and hurtful,” but noted that it "conveys the language and attitudes of Missouri in the 1840s" when laws were being passed in the South to deprive blacks of their civil rights.
Regardless, one of the basic lessons Huck Finn learns — and the novel teaches us — is that Jim, the runaway slave he befriends, is a man more than an object of servitude.
Alan Gribben, an eminent Twain scholar and Auburn University professor, edited the NewSouth Books edition of “Huck Finn,” which includes a 3,300 word foreword that explains his decision to censor the novel because teaching it made him uncomfortable.
If an extended essay was necessary to clarify and defend editorial choices, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea in the first place.
Who could possibly think the word “slave” is more suitable to African-Americans than the “N” word? The word “slave” was not even included in the U.S. Constitution, as blacks are merely referred to as “all other persons.”
Use of the racist slur has tapered off in some circles, except for those inherently racist or ignorant, as political correctness slowly demanded its exclusion. Regrettably — depending on your point of view — the “N” word is more commonly used in black youths’ street jargon. When they refer to each other with THAT word, it tends to demonstrate a kinship and perhaps removes the sting compared to when a white person utters it.
Even so, most adult African-Americans do not like the word, regardless of who utters it, and refrain from speaking it.
Though Barron wanted the N word removed from the Twain classics, he never made a similar request for the slur to be edited out of vintage rap records in which artists made what they felt was a valid social statement.
Should the defunct group NWA (N——- With Attitude) change its name to Slaves With Attitude?
What’s more, let’s hope the revisions in the Twain books don’t start a trend to tinker with film, theater and music classics.
Should movies like “Gone with the Wind,” “In the Heat of the Night” and others, also be censored? Can you imagine how substituting a specific word, which some genteel people tend to dislike, would alter the passion of Rhett Butler’s final comment to Scarlett O’Hara: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a darn”?
Should the Bible be edited to remove the word “God” to appease atheists? Then again, why would an atheist be reading the Bible?
The only constructive fallout from the Twain book edits would be if it spurred inquisitive childrenA child’s inquiring mind can make a cat’s curiosity look blasé by comparison.  Often, when kids are cautioned to avoid something that’s not for their eyes or ears, their interest is aroused. Consequently, some would possibly seek the uncensored “Huck Finn” just to see what the fuss is all about, and then ask why the changes were made. Teachers and parents should be prepared to handle such questions from curious pupils.
Although Gribben may have intended to promote public amity, most scholars consider it sinful to alter a work of art that has become a classic — albeit periodically criticized — for well over a century, even to appease modern readers.
Censoring or revising classic literature to accommodate contemporary sensitivities makes as much sense as covering up works of art to conceal nudity that may offend some viewers.
Worst of all, politically correct edits interfere with the indispensable right of free speech and, as Ray Bradbury noted, it’s just another method of book burning.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Ray Bradbury, who died on June 5th. Conformity, ignorance and censorship were key themes in his classic sci-fi novel, “Fahrenheit 451.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Kiddie Graduation Song Swap is Dumb — Hate Mail is Dumber (June 8, 2012)

The decision by city schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott to defend replacing an ultra-patriotic song with one about teen romance for a kindergarten graduation at a Coney Island school is not only wrong, but it’s dumber — with a capital D — than the principal’s original decision.
The song intended to be used at the graduation ceremony at the West 12th Street elementary school was Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” (with lyrics such as “…‘cause the flag still stand for freedom and they can’t take that away”). It seems that P.S. 90 Principal Greta Hawkins first rejected it as “inappropriate for five year olds,” then later said she did not want to “offend the other cultures” of guests at the ceremony.
Either reasoning shows a poor lack of judgment since any culture’s flag stands for a nation’s sovereignty! And, despite the school’s diverse student population, it is in Brooklyn, which is in New York City, which is in the United States of America.
So who the heck would it offend?
Even if the principal finds the Greenwood tune offensive to HER culture, she shouldn’t foist her personal views on kindergarten pupils. Still, the Department of Education (DOE) should certainly not defend that sort of irresponsible leadership!
Walcott and a DOE spokesperson noted that students recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” and “America the Beautiful” every day, kind of implying that sufficient patriotism already echoes through the school. But, last year, when “God Bless the USA” was used for the fifth grade graduation, the principal made no public objection.
A source told me that Hawkins is a Jehovah’s Witness, so perhaps it’s the “God” reference to which she objects, although He’s mentioned in the Pledge, too. “God” is also mentioned in the national anthem’s fourth verse, though the first is the only one traditionally recited. But she won’t vocalize her objection to that since it is DOE policy.
For the graduation playlist, the principal substituted Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” a pop tune about teen romance, which was a top ten single two years ago and contains lyrics such as “You know you love me, you know you care, just shout whenever and I’ll be there…”
I’ve never heard any of the 18-year-old heartthrob’s songs, but since when is a tune about teenage romance, full of references to heartbreak, appropriate for kindergartners, barely out of diapers and years away experiencing such angst?
On Monday, after a storm of protest from parents of students at the school, the principal scratched the Bieber song from the graduation playlist.
“God Bless the USA” is not my kind of song. I prefer “Born in the USA.” In fact, before September 12, 2001, I’d never heard Greenwood’s song, yet it remains a distinctive niche in my post-9/11 memory. Not long after the World Trade Center attacks, a local radio station altered Greenwood’s lyrics to make them movingly suitable for the tragedy. From then until now, whenever I hear the revised version I fill with emotion.
Greenwood’s 1984 song became a right-wing anthem after it was played at that year’s GOP convention, seventeen years before the World Trade Center tragedy. I only became familiar with it when I hunted down the revised version and learned that it was only broadcast on that station after a DJ altered it. I recorded it from my stereo and still have it on disc.  
Hawkins is no stranger to controversy. Two years ago at a staff meeting, the principal reportedly made racially insensitive remarks. Earlier this year, she was criticized when she instituted a questionable policy that gave students extra credit for not using the toilet. That may have been unpopular, but it certainly wasn’t racially motivated. It’s sheer stupidity!
On the web site, almost twenty teachers from the school submitted anonymous reviews for Hawkins over the last two years. While most are extremely negative, citing her as “incompetent,” “horrible” and “vindictive,” several give her high ratings, including one with the summary: “One of the most amazing, capable, committed leaders I have ever met.”
The song swap has generated what some perceive as a racially motivated attack on patriotism by an African-American principal. Boorish bigots tend to inject race into such matters, but since Justin Bieber’s white as new-fallen snow, their argument lacks substance.
If she substituted some rap diatribe with lyrics promoting killing cops, an anti-white rant or one full of references to ho’s and bitches, over the Greenwood song, they’d have a point.
On the other hand, the Bieber song doesn’t offend any culture, except pop culture. Nevertheless, its redundant “baby, baby, baby” chorus, like repetitive children’s rhymes, still doesn’t make it age-appropriate.
Criticizing Hawkins for changing the graduation song is undeniably warranted, especially with her flimsy excuses, but attacking her with hate mail filled with anti-black slurs, is deplorable. Nevertheless, the NYPD is investigating three anonymous letters she received, as well as the slashing of the tires on her car and feces smeared on her windshield.
Race may be secondary to this issue, but one principal’s ill-advised decision to substitute an unmistakably patriotic anthem for one with a theme that no five year old could possibly grasp, is hardly a reason to prompt racial attacks.
I disagree with Greta Hawkins’ song swap and other issues, but, at least, the principal stands by her convictions and seems prepared to take the heat, however ill-conceived her choices may be. Those who attacked her anonymously are spineless cowards, like others of their ilk.
I hope investigators find them, from whatever hole they reside in, and mete out fitting justice.
More importantly, let’s hope the kindergarten students at the center of this debate are not tainted by this misguided, polarizing uproar that surrounds their first graduation and will have forgotten it when they don caps and gowns at graduations years from now.