Leave My Bones Alone: Censorship and the Stealthy Destruction of History

By: Guest Authors

By: Kim Stallings

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Oh, such an old and tired cliché. All cliches have a ring of truth, but this one–like most others–is not entirely correct. True, words cannot “break bones,” but they can make us experience a staggeringly wide-range of emotions.

But it isn’t my intention to focus on the emotive power of words (which is where we so often get stuck). So let’s just circle the wagons ’round to my real point (oop…hope I didn’t offend anyone in Texas with that tired cliche and the connotations illicited of cowboys and such). I want to explore the real power of words: The shaping of reality.

In the world o’ academia, this is called the Social Construction of Reality.

This may be a great, big “duh,” but I’m going to start here anyway. Words are symbols that represent other things and ideas. They are tools with which we make sense of our world, with which we make meaning.

Recall the scene from The Miracle Worker when Helen Keller first was able to “name” water. The world opened up for her at that point–which before had been a dark and silent whirl of confusion. She had previously learned “letters” and how to spell, but these “symbols” had no meaning for her. She did not even know that words existed. Finally learning to name aspects of her experience with words opened up the connection between symbols and experience in her mind and gave her life a new depth of meaning.

And so the same is true for us all.

The Helen Keller story is a very simple but memorable example of the power of words and how they shape our reality.

In terms of the written word, naming records experience. What a brilliant gift–uniquely human.

But sometimes the written records of our experiences are not pleasant to revisit. The words and the experiences they recall make us uncomfortable. That leads me to my real purpose in writing this article.

I’m speaking specifically to the efforts of Alan Gribben, a professor of English and Mark Twain scholar at Auburn University who serves as editor of a new edition of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in which the word slave has replaced the use of the N-word. Instances of the “politically incorrect” injun have also been changed.

Twain’s work has come under the attack of revisionists for decades. To this point, his work has survived, in tact (though there have been countless attempts to ban it in various venues).

What Professor Gribben is doing, censoring this historic literary text, is a mistake. And it is irresposible at least (and most certainly, at the same time, naïve and arrogant). It is also insidious–not unlike the Obama Administration’s relanguaging of acts of “terrorism” to “human-caused tragedies,” among a host of others.

Naming is powerful, and it is those in a position of power who name. When confronted with words (or facts) that present records of our experiences that are–uncomfortable (or inconvenient), for one reason or another–those in power often attempt to relanguage, to rename.

Attempts to relanguage–or to censor–are attempts to reshape our perception of reality. To alter experience, history, and ultimately, the future–by stealthly altering the past.

What happens when we attempt to alter history? We lose a part of ourselves—our common humanity. We also lose the the ability to grow and change…to learn from history. And we grossly deny all who came before us.

Deciding what should be included and excluded from our history has always been the province of elites. Putting a stop to it–the province of We the People.

Our history as a nation is complex. Adding to what we know, rather than altering or deleting is the answer. MORE talk–not less. (The First Amendment ROCKS!)

It’s so simple, really. It all comes down to perspective and context.

When Mark Twain penned Huckleberry Finn, the world was a different place.

To relanaguage suggests that we are not able to understand the difference between then and now. And it also suggests much darker things and assumes a lack of intelligence that should offend us all. It denies us all the privledge to study a FULL history and learn and grow from what we see.

Does the “N” word make you uncomfortable? Maybe it should. Does that mean it should be erased from our history? No! Does it mean it belongs in our everyday vocabulary now? My opinion, no.

I can’t even SAY the word, it holds so much negative power for me. But I can read a book written 135 years ago and understand the context in which it was written…and TALK ABOUT IT. I can celebrate that we’ve come far enough as a people that this word is not a common part of our vocabulary any longer.

Instead of relanguaging Twain—etc.—why not discuss? Put things in the appropriate historical context. Ask questions and seek answers? Why was that language accepted at the time the text was written? What has changed? Why does it bother us now?

Bottom line, censorship is unAmerican (and anti-Constitutional). It flies in the face of the foundation of our country…the liberties we are all so fortunate to enjoy because of a document crafted 200+ years ago. A document that rose up against tyranny and those who would control lives (and minds) by any means necessary.

Censorship is an attempt to control lives and minds. And it is a supreme act of arrogance.

I would not deny our history of slavery or racism any more than I would deny the horrors of the holocaust—also a subject of revision.

Erasing or replacing a word or phrase doesn’t change the facts of history.

Here on the bookshelf beside my desk lies a copy of the original Twain. Not going anywhere—unless someone comes into my home and takes it from me. (Not an impossibility; it’s been done before *see NAZIs*).

And we do not need to forget! That’s one of our biggest problems as a people–our sound-bite memory. No, instead we need to understand texts like Huckleberry Finn in historical context. Despite attempts at censorship, the underlying factors that created and perpetuated the social conditions of that time will not just magically vanish.

By attempting to revise history, we’re doing a disservice to everyone who came before us and all they experienced. And it changes nothing but our integrity as a nation…and weakens the foundation upon which we stand.

If this is allowed to happen, what does this say about us as a nation? Our past? Our leaders and their confidence in us as a People–and–maybe more importantly, their vision/agenda for our future? OUR vision for the future?

“When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you … when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength, but collective understanding—to resist this void, this non-being, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.” ~ Adrienne Rich

About the Author:
Kim Stallings is the author of two textbooks published by Prentice Hall/Pearson Education: QUEST: READING THE WORLD AND ARGUING FOR CHANGE and STRATEGIES FOR READING AND ARGUING ABOUT LITERATURE. She is also the author of NOW I SEE, her first fiction novel, as well as 70+ poems and articles published in various journals throughout the US. She taught for 13 years at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte in both English and American Studies. Kim now runs the websites www.conservativerefocus.com and www.trueconservative101.com along with political author and activist Barry Secrest.

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