Making History Whole

I was struck yesterday by the similar concerns expressed by two rather different news stories, both of which are closely related to my own interests in the consequences of editing.

21st Century Expressions

The first has been circulating in the academic world this week. A new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn removes the racial slurs and replaces them with words considered less offensive. (See “Taking the ‘N Word’ out of ‘Huckleberry Finn” from Education Week. Also check out The New York Times, NPR, and Publishers Weekly.)

According to the Publishers Weekly release, “‘This is not an effort to render Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn colorblind,’ said [Alan] Gribben, speaking from his office at Auburn University at Montgomery, where he’s spent most of the past 20 years heading the English department. ‘Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.'”

A Long History of Improving

The second is a piece of news from the inaugural session of the new Congress, which opened with the reading of the Constitution, but which left out now-amended passages like the “three-fifths clause,” which defined slaves as a fraction of a person for the census. (See “Should Congress Have Read the WHOLE Constitution?” from The Atlantic Monthly.)

According to Rep. Jackson, “The new Republican majority and their redacted Constitutional reading gives little deference to the long history of improving the Constitution and only seeks an interpretation of our Constitution based on the now, not the historic, broad body of law and struggle that it has taken to get there.”

Both of these stories question what it means to remember and respond to the uglier side of history. Both express a concern — I think, a legitimate one — that the past not simply be erased. I can’t help thinking of another literary parallel…

“He who controls the past, controls the future.”

The Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984 is charged with the important role of modifying the historical record to reflect Party principles and Party versions of truth. Orwell’s novel depicts an extreme version of manipulated forgetting, but it underscores the significant impact perceptions of the past can have on the direction a nation takes.

(See articles on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid, among other examples, for further discussion of the balance between justice, apology, and reconciliation.)

I’m still pondering, and although I don’t think there is a simple answer, I do think  establishing a few bright lines might clarify the issues at hand.

First, we should attempt to distinguish between acknowledging that change has taken place and ignoring the fact that change has been — and is — needed. Second, we should be able to separate honest confrontation of derogatory language from a move to return it to everyday vocabulary.

If that requires a little extra effort and a little more conscientious discussion between students, teachers, parents, friends, and fellow citizens, I’m inclined to think it’s worth it, but I’d love to hear your opinions as well. To me, the most encouraging piece of this whole debate is seeing the conversations these stories have generated.

After all, it may be easier to sweep a few pieces of history under the rug, but such a silence is always awkward, rarely healthy for the community, and almost never lasts long before it begins to fester.



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