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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

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Elizabeth May on Huck Finn Add to ...

Elizabeth May is leader of the Green Party of Canada.

Have you read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ?

Maybe three times.

Will you read it again?

I'll probably read it again - but I'm kind of busy right now!

Would you read the recent bowdlerized version?

I don't think so. If a racist has written a racist term and the book is itself - very hard to imagine - a worthy piece of literature, I wouldn't want anybody to read it. But when someone [writes]who strives for justice and a recognition of the universality of humanity, it's great literature. We all know that Sam Clemens was no racist. In that context, if I could avoid it, I wouldn't want to read anything that was changed since the day he wrote it.

Is it a masterpiece?


Is it still a masterpiece with 219 instances of the word "nigger" being replaced by "slave"?

It's not just "Nigger Jim," it's "Injun Joe." There is a societal context and the purpose for reading this literature. The message that slavery is wrong and that humanity shines through. There are some large ethical constructs that are worth talking about in grade school. It's worth teaching it well. I don't think that the changing of the book makes any sense, but I did hear some teachers saying, unless you are a really good teacher, you can have problems with a work like this.

What age is appropriate to read it and be taught it in context?

I have a lot of appreciation for the intelligence of children. You just don't talk down to kids. You obviously describe it using different language. … "It was a very large and wrong thing. When this book was written, can you imagine it, one human being was allowed to own another human being and there are places in this world where that is still going on?" You can talk to kids in ways that expose a historical reality, a moral issue, and it can be explained.

Has the publisher underestimated young people's ability to understand context, to "get it"?

Yes. There may be some highly charged racial settings where the word would have more power than it should. But if you listen to most cultural references, movies, hip-hop, rap, there are many, many worse words that kids are being exposed to without any kind of context that ennobles. Huck Finn is a story that ennobles.

What is your preferred term for "black" nowadays?

Well, of course, social mores change on this. When I was a little girl, the appropriate term was "coloured people." Then it changed. "Coloured people" was seen as derogatory. I say "black." To me, the cue is if a group that self-identifies and is fighting for its rights wants to change the language around how they are described, then I use the language they prefer.

Is substituting "slave" for "nigger" appropriate?

I don't think any substitution is appropriate. We're talking about how people talked in those days. You can practically feel the Mississippi River moving along, feel the cadence of the time. Part of what's wrong for me about "Slave Jim" is it breaks the cadence and the rhythm of the sentences. It's false and wrong.

Is it an avoidance of the issue, or are good-intentioned people trying to change the way people view the present by changing the way the past is presented?

I think people want to deny a lot about human nature by pretending things didn't happen that did happen. Literature is art. Art isn't art if you sanitize it for current mores; to have gone back to Renaissance art and insisted on putting plaster fig leaves over marble genitalia carved by Michelangelo. Art is the creation of the artist and should not be changed subsequently by people who think they are doing the public a favour.

Some would argue that inappropriate or hurtful words are bad in any circumstance, regardless of context or "art."

There are places in society where hurtful words appear in ways that are hurtful. I don't think Huck Finn is a place where words appear in a way that is hurtful if people are reading the whole story and getting the message. It is an ennobling message. And the use of the language in its original form is part of the message.

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