I am currently reading the brilliant and timeless classic ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ – by Harper Lee. Why it has taken me 37 years to pick up a copy, I will never know – however, suffice it to say I am thoroughly kicking myself that getting around to reading it has taken me so long.

If you too have never picked up a copy I suggest you get one quickly. If you have read it before, enjoyed it, but do not still own a copy, I suggest you get another soon as well.

Why the urgency? Well – I am seriously concerned that there may soon come a day when political correctness erases it’s Pulitzer Prize winning prose from the face of the earth. You see, To Kill A Mockingbird is an expertly written book; in which Harper Lee dissects the irrational attitudes to class and race through the eyes of a young and precocious child – one Scout Finch.

The backdrop to all of the escapades Scout and her brother Jem get up to is the trial of a young black man who stands accused of attacking a young white woman in America’s 1930’s Deep South; a period in history, in case you were unaware, when a black man was very unlikely to be referred to as African-American or Black-British and more likely to be called, when politely addressed, a Negro – and when people were less inclined to be polite, the N-word.

Now, just then I refrained from using the N-word because to some, myself included, it is a term that resonates with hate; reminds of a time when equal rights were a battle-ground and fuels the debate on how wrong, or right, young musicians of today are when they say they are taking the word back, or the power in the word out.

Being a black man in my mid 30’s I am also old enough to remember the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, recall seeing the TV footage of the beating of Rodney King; the riots that followed, which were reported as echoes of the 1965 Watts Riots, and have a clear understanding of what racism is all about.

So I can understand the sentiments behind Dr Alan Gribben publishing a new version of Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn‘, but feel he made a fundamental error when removing the 219 instances of the word nigger because, when teaching, he felt uncomfortable saying the N-word out loud.

Instead, Gribben replaced the word nigger with the word slave, another word that has links back through history to times when the subjugation of human rights was considered to be nothing more than a matter of commerce, necessity or a conquerors right – a practice that is much more than 400 years old.

However, notice that I introduced the full word nigger to this blog and that I referenced times in history that I am not old enough to have witnessed first hand.

I did this because I have had the luxury of an education, the opportunity to read as many books as I could lay my hands on and have a voracious appetite to uncover facts; to just find out about new things that I previously knew nothing about.

And it is in the thirst for knowledge, this hunger to understand the past; it’s lessons for the present and the paths for the future it can set out, that I fear Dr Gribben’s inadvertent white-washing of history is nothing more than a literary crime.

Our history is what it is and we are what we are. We should not erase our past, nor brush over it. We should teach it, learn from it and embrace it – because it serves to define what we can become.

By replacing the word nigger with slave Dr Gribben demonstrates a kind of censorship that could rob future generations of a clear idea of what really happened in the past. If reading the classics out loud to a room full of anticipating minds is uncomfortable, he should in fact rejoice, not cringe; as it means history is still teaching us lessons, or at least affording us the opportunity to do so, and Dr Gribben should take that opportunity to use that divisive word and ensure his pupils learn of the wrongs perpetuated throughout history; so they can ensure their generation works to keep those crimes as lessons from the past.

No good ever comes from denying history; victors re-writing events to paint them in a better light or hide misdeeds or crimes only serves to fuel ignorance in future generations or build contempt in those who know what dark secrets and wrongs lie hidden in our pasts.

We wonder why children of today believe every facet of history as told by Hollywood blockbusters and denounce the fact they would rather spend hours playing on a console rather than going to the library (remember those places?) to get a good book out.

In Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ the black characters are referred to as niggers; not because Harper is attempting to be provocative – rather, that is how black men, women and children were referred to in the past – and are sometimes referred to even now.

It was wrong in 1930’s America, it was wrong in Watts in 1965. The institutional racism that is part of the word’s DNA was revealed to the world when Rodney King was beaten and we are reminded of it every time a young rapper, musician, actor or poet pulls the N-word out.

Political correctness has its place in modern society; we definitely need something to protect an individual’s rights, the rights of those who cannot claim those rights for themselves; and it is needed to stop the wrongs that people have so freely felt comfortable committing in the past – so that we all can be assured that we have our equality and deserved human rights.

Political correctness should take a stand. However, as Harper taught us, when she gave voice to that admirable lawyer, Atticus Finch:-

“Shoot all the Blue Jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird.”


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  2. ajjam says:

    I find it absurd when a supposedly intelligent and well-educated person does what Dr Gribben has done.

    Can he not see the damage? Can he not see that removing evidence of what occurred is a crime in itself?

    Did he not consider the possibility that those of a certain point of view, and who also lack scruples, could use this down the line to deny that such language was used as the norm and that “black folk” were not really spoken about in such a way?

    What price common sense in a man?

  3. […] Top Posts & Pages Yellow CarWhat's good for the goose…Natural Born Leader'STOP! You're killing all the Mockingbirds!' […]

  4. Doodlemum says:

    I read this book at school. The film is fantastic too. I think dissecting though in English Lit class took away it’s magic for me.

  5. Coco Rivers says:

    “And it is in the thirst for knowledge, this hunger to understand the past; it’s lessons for the present and the paths for the future it can set out, that I fear Dr Gribben’s inadvertent white-washing of history is nothing more than a literary crime.”

    I have quoted your lines above as they sturck a chord with me, excellently articulated and very thought provoking. I read To Kill A Mockingbird and loved the book, the complexities of such a rich period in history told through the eyes of a child still resonates with brilliance and depth. I agree with you 110% that such censorship of original works is detrimental to the work and subsequent readers, erasing the historical context which is so essential to the tale.

    Who, in effect, is such white washing for?

    • Precisely. To deny the past quite literally robs us of it as well.

      I, like many I am sure, wish events in the past had not occurred. However, i truly believe we wouldn’t be the people we are today if you went back and changed it.

  6. Rachycakes says:

    This is a deeply thought-provoking post, Mark. Literature is a snapshot of its time, a relic of history, and political correctness can eradicate all the lessons contained therein. The N-word is a case in point – I for one loathe it, but it would never occur to me – as an editor – to remove every mention from Twain (who was very much a product of his time, even if he was something of a pioneer and free thinker).

    As for your choice of reading material: better late than never! 😉

    • Thanks as always.

      I also loathe the N-word: I don’t subscribe to the belief that proliferate use of it will water down the venom or transition its power to the parties wronged. I instead believe it to be an ‘#epicfail’ or embarrassing own goal. “Imagine that – you actually got them to take on the moniker themselves”.

      However – white-washing the past is wrong…

      NB – I am also making my way, slowly, through The Iliad as well. Again – what the hell took me so long!?! Fagles translation reads like listening to Bach.

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