Airbrushing racism: Why racist words shouldn’t be edited from history

Kunle Olulode

Kunle Olulode, director of Voice for Change England

The opportunity to re-introduce Astrid Lindgren’s children’s literary figure Pippi Longstocking to a new Swedish generation in 2014 should have been a fairly innocuous affair. However, the decision to edit out parts of the programme, which originally aired in 1969, on anti-racist grounds caused a major furore. Two scenes in particular, Pippi’s reference to her father as King of the Negroes and secondly her slit-eyed impersonation of someone from China, were removed, provoking national and international debates about the rights and wrongs of the re-edit.

Critics rounded on the Swedish broadcaster SVT, accusing it of imposing adult PC values on a beloved fictional figure. But this situation is not unique to Sweden. The people who run television programming throughout western Europe are acting in the same way. The programme could be seen as simply part of work reflecting attitudes of a particular period. I fear there is a danger we lose the contextual understanding of the work and an understanding of the period by editing it in this way.

Mark Twain’s classic novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been at the centre of a similar debate in the United States, but the book was always intended to be controversial. Critics rounded on it when it was first published in 1885. The Committee of the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts, publicly declared the book “couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect” and that “all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions”.
The enterprising publisher saw this as a “rattling tip-top puff” and used the library ban and …

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Restrospective censorship, Mark Twain and the "n" word

The publication of a new edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn sans “offensive” words is beyond bizarre.

Professor Alan Gribben, whose bright idea this was, claims that he brought out the edition because the proliferation of the word “nigger” in the book meant that far too many institutions were uncomfortable with teaching it. He’s replaced it with “slave”.

This is actually understandable. I think I’d feel pretty uncomfortable getting schoolchildren to say “nigger” out loud, or even reading the word out loud to them (though I’m genuinely baffled as to why Gribben changed “Injun” to “Indian”. Perhaps it’s a US cultural thing I’m missing. Any explanation appreciated).

But the problem is, when I read a line of dialogue, or even narration out loud, it’s not “me” speaking. It’s the character, or the author. If we are to teach children literature, then this is the key thing they’ll have to grasp from the start.

As important is the realisation that the world we inhabit is not the only world. It is foolish to pretend that the world in Twain’s time is the same as the world now.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.