January 6 11

My maternal grandfather, my Zayde, was born in Eastern Europe, in a little place called Galicia, which I believe, at the time, was part of Poland. He lived in a ghetto. He survived the Dachau concentration camp and emigrated to Canada in the early 1950s with nothing but his Auschwitz-survived wife and their young daughter, born to them in a DP camp in Austria, and a dream of a better life. There was not a better, kinder, gentler, more lovable man on this planet. He spoiled his daughter, and then continued to spoil her children – my siblings and me. He loved everyone. He danced with strangers. He made friends at bus stops using a VERY broken Yiddish/English hybrid. He was wonderful.

There was this one time, though, that he used the s-word in front of my friends. I remember being so incredibly mortified and in that moment, I wished with all of my might for an American-born grandfather. And no, it wasn’t the s-word you might be thinking. It was “schvatrze.” If you are not familiar with this term, it’s a racially offensive slur.

Only, to him, it wasn’t a racially offensive slur. It was simply a Yiddish word; one of the hundreds of thousands that he used on a daily basis. And it meant BLACK. He was simply being descriptive, and could not, for the life of him, figure out why I was so embarrassed by him. This became, to young Ali, an incredible learning moment. My grandfather was not a racist. I mean, really, if you knew him, you knew he was one of the most tolerant people on the planet; an absolute lover of everyone. Taking a step back, it’s easy to see that you don’t survive a Nazi death camp, a horrific experience like that, and come out intolerant on the other side of that atrocity. I mean, he was in there, tortured there, because he was Jewish, because he was different. That was it. There was absolutely no other reason.

So, while the word schvartze does exist, and to some it is – unfortunately – used as a racial slur, to some, those who grew up with Yiddish as their first, and sometimes only, language, to those who the word meant nothing but a color, it existed in a very different way.

Another racial slur, the N-word, is used in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. 200+ times. And there are people who would like to rewrite this classic. NewSouth Books, a Montgomery, Alabama-based publisher, went in and used the “find and replace” key and used the word “slave” instead of the n-word, they said, to make it more classroom friendly. WHAT? They changed the text of a classic. They actually went so far as to alter the words of Mark Twain that were first published for the world to see in 1885. Again…WHAT?

(For the record…the N-word and the word slave are NOT interchangeable. They do not mean the same thing. One doesn’t replace the other.)

I call both shenanigans and censorship. One of the biggest beauties of a book like Huckleberry Finn is that is presents students and teachers with such tremendous talking, teaching and learning points. It allows for OPEN DISCUSSION about what life in the south was like in the mid-19th century and that racism existed and this THIS was the way people spoke at the time. Spoiler alert: They used the N-word. Do we not want our children to know the history…the REAL history??? It’s not pretty, it’s not tied up with a nice little bow, it’s dirty and complicated and controversial. And, as much as we don’t want to admit it, the N-word was a normal part of the lexicon back then. Pretending that potentially controversial situations and words and events and even racial slurs don’t exist is doing children a great disservice. These are discussions that need to be had. They are lessons that need to be learned. The word is SUPPOSED to make us feel uncomfortable.

The same way that my Zayde’s use of the word “schvatrze” may have caught me off off-guard, and may have brought up discussions that we wouldn’t necessarily have had…it was an important discussion to have. It was an important lesson to learn. It was supposed to make me feel uncomfortable.

What’s next? A Merchant of Venice rewrite to make my people happy?

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  1. Love this post! I teach Merchant of Venice and my students always ask me why we learn it. I may let them read your post – it’s the same answer I give them, only worded better:)

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    Comment by Elana on January 6, 2011
  2. Someone said it the best on Twitter today. To paraphrase: Snooki gets a book deal, and they want to censor Huck Finn. That’s the sound of literature dying.

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    Comment by Camels & Chocolate on January 6, 2011
  3. BRAVO.

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    Comment by Angie [A Whole Lot o on January 6, 2011
  4. I cannot agree more! It is so disrespectful to Mark Twain and any other writer-words are carefully chosen to convey a message and changing them changes the message. Maybe if more kids read the word in Huck Finn and discussed it, they would be less inclined to use it now that we know better.

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    Comment by LibraryGirl62 on January 6, 2011
  5. my grandma also did not understand why my mom got so upset with her when she used “schvatrze” … and i agree about huck finn– and it isn’t the only book to use that word… are they going to go over every single book ever written and “fix” them all to be (what they consider) politically correct?

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    Comment by Rachel on January 6, 2011
  6. This makes me sad on so many levels. I’m not sure if political correctness has gone too far or what, but it’s ridiculous.

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    Comment by Avitable on January 6, 2011
  7. I have read this through a half-dozen times and had this tab open for almost 2 hours…I hardly know how to respond to this. The first half about your Zayde made me eyes tear up and my heart tingle. What an incredible story! The second half made me want to march in outrage against anyone who wants to try and soften our history. History is hard, but it’s incredible to know the truth about people, about our stories and where we’ve come from and how far we have progressed. Changing Huck Finn is worse than altering “offensive” Shakespeare–we are still struggling with the problems addressed in Huck Finn, the thought of trying to bury that for propriety’s sake makes me sick to my stomach.

    This is a pathetic, inadequate attempt to detail my reaction to this–but I tried.

    Excellent post, one of the best I’ve ever read.

    xox

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    Comment by heidikins on January 7, 2011
  8. I totally agree. You can’t take the history out of literature. It’s replacing criticism with personal opinion…I wish people had the ability to separate that in their minds. Critical thinking will breathe it’s last breath if we keep this up…

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    Comment by Geosomin on January 7, 2011
  9. I agree and think this censorship is awful. I have heard that some school boards and groups are trying to re-write history books to “gloss-over,” (my term ,not theirs), horrible things that occurred in the past. Slavery, the Holocaust, etc. Our present was made by the past. Every wrong had a hand in shaping today and what is supposed to be a path to right. Literature, especially classic literature, is the best, most original and complete snapshot of the past that we have. The CHOSEN words of the writers are the most important. Awards were bestowed based on the extreme amount of time and thought an author put into words. And yet people with varying degrees of education and actual real-life experience want to alter this? Ridiculous. I hope that my children get my love of reading so that they can read the original versions of anything altered in school. My favorite book in high school was the Catcher in the Rye. Pretty sure that one has already been removed from school libraries as the find and replace key would have blown up from over use.

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    Comment by Christina on January 7, 2011
  10. Well said!

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    Comment by Pam on January 7, 2011
  11. I have to agree with Heidikins about re-writing our history.

    My Grandma will use this word, like your Zayde did, and I don’t feel it is racist or hurtful. Those were the times they grew up in. Now, when my 27 year old cousin uses the word, then I have issues.

    But that was a word used when this book was written. It’s a historical reference and true to the times. Are we going to go back and re-write books about World War 2 and the Nazis? Or even American history with the Civil War?

    It’s just a word. Taking it out and censoring it makes the word more powerful.

    Great post Ali!

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    Comment by Kristabella on January 7, 2011
  12. Out of all the tweets, status and posts I have seen on this, Ali you put it across so perfectly. Kudos.

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    Comment by ThePeachy1 on January 7, 2011
  13. I couldn’t agree more. It starts with Huck Finn, but it won’t end there. This is a slippery and dangerous slope.

    I’m waiting for them to re-title the Herman Melville classic to Moby Richard.

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    Comment by Stacey on January 7, 2011
  14. This is the way people spoke – and if we cover it up, not only are we giving the words more power, but we’re trying to change our history. Those who don’t learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them; isn’t that how the saying goes? And if we want to learn from our mistakes, we need to know about them. Great post, Ali.

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    Comment by Jessica on January 7, 2011
  15. There would be no need to change the words in the novel if parents explained it to their children so that they would never use it in real life.

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    Comment by Lorne Marr on January 7, 2011
  16. I’m appalled by this. OMG. Wrote a post about it myself. As a former grad student of literature of that time period, I’m devastated…. Actually devastated. If/when this new edition is published, I hope no teacher touches it. Although I’m sure some teachers are thrilled. Gah. (Beautiful post, Ali…!)

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    Comment by Haley-O (Cheaty) on January 7, 2011
  17. I read your blog all thetime…I comment…well, I commented once before, maybe.

    This is absolutely the best post I’ve read. Thank you for sharing your memories of your zayde and your thoughts on this important topic.

    I agree with you…and not just because my grandmother still calls my best friend from law school the “pretty schvartze” while I cringe…

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    Comment by Jen on January 7, 2011
  18. My grandfather used to say it too, but I never realised it was a slanderous word -I just thought it was more yiddish!

    It’s truly sad when we have to start rewriting things to make ourselves feel better. The more we do it, the more we’ll forget. The more we forget, the more likely we are to do it again…

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    Comment by Racheal on January 8, 2011
  19. I hate when people start talking about re-writing classics. They’re classics for a reason… and the rhythm of the language is indicative of the time in which the stories were written. I think people mean well, but they’re actions are misguided. Indeed, harsh words are “harsh” because they’re supposed to make a person feel uncomfortable – it a good thing. It means one’s societal parameters are in check. It’s a good thing.

    Oy.

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    Comment by Grumble Girl on January 9, 2011
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    Comment by authentic discounted on January 10, 2011
  21. Amen! Couldn’t have said it better myself!

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    Comment by Liz on January 14, 2011
  22. Yes, Virginia, That IS the Sound of Mark Twain Turning Over in His Grave. | Cheaper Than Therapy Stunning quest there. What happened after? Take care!

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