Tuesday, January 04, 2011

An Open Letter to Samuel Clemens

Hey MT, I wanted to let you know you've created quite a stir in your wake.

But perhaps you knew you would do that.

After all, you asked that your autobiography be published 100 years after your death in 1910. I would too, if I held your beliefs long before the rest of the country. I also would fear retaliation against my kin if I believed in the worth of all humankind the way you did when it was not the accepted position of the time. Your belief that all people are created equal -- regardless of skin color -- was pretty radical for your time. And your tongue-in-cheek way of showing that ignorance, by highlighting racial inequities in your writing, was lost to many both then and now.

I have to say, when I first read "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" in junior high and high school I was not inclined to start calling black people "niggers" or Native American "injuns" because it was written in your books. Instead I questioned those words, wondering why it was they were given to people with skin a different color than my own. It wasn't until I later read "Cowslip" that I understood the impact slavery had on people. As an adult my reading of "The Known World" and "The Narrative of the Life of Federick Douglass" deepened that understanding. I can't wait to dig in to your autobiography, now that it is finally out, to uncover more of your thoughts on the "situation" at the time.

Now people want to sanitize your writing, to remove the words that you purposefully included to highlight the thinking that was ingrained in people's minds at the time, the wrongs that were being done. The inhumanity is clear without using such awful words, people say, why inflame the situation by using those words?

Because today they ARE terrible and at the time that you wrote them, they were not.

So I will advocate that we leave your writings as they were written, to make bare to the world how far we have come.  Thank you, Mark Twain, for giving us something to debate and challenge for generations beyond you, for generations to come.

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