I read today about the upcoming release of a sanitized version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in which the “N-word,” as it is known in the media, is replaced by the word “Slave.” So, instead of “Nigger Jim,” there will be, presumably “Slave Jim.” Never mind that Mark Twain makes Jim the hero of the book, which is vigorously anti-slavery, so that the use of the word is ironic while also accurately reflecting the racism of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era. Sure let’s clean up the book, so that students today don’t have to be exposed to the Voldemort-like “Word-That-Must-Not-Be-Named” and get uncomfortable. And, gee, after reading this version of the book, maybe some of them will get the idea that in the South after the Civil War, there really wasn’t that much racism. After all, here’s this book by Mark Twain that deals with that era, with lots of genuine-sounding dialect, and not once is that dreadful “N-word” mentioned.
About 15 years ago I purchased the piano score of George Gershwin’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess. Many years before that when I was a college student I had played through the same score. The Baker Library at Dartmouth had lots of musical scores, and I remember checking out their edition of the piano score to study and play back in the 1970s. The edition I purchased in the 1990s looked identical to the one I remembered so well from college — with one exception. The word nigger had been removed. In the opera the black folks of Catfish Row, who used that word to refer to themselves, much as hip-hop types do nowadays (but only black to black — Jackie Chan learns this in a funny scene in the movie Rush Hour), no longer did so, using other less provocative words. The white policeman who used the epithet “you damned darkey” instead said “you damned dummy.” And so forth. Other than that, this edition of the score looked identical to the one I remembered, and there was no indication that this was an edited version. I began to think that I had imagined the racial slurs in the score I had studied many years before. Finally, after significant effort researching the issue, I discovered that George’s brother, Ira, after George’s death had revised the libretto (which he and DuBose Heyward had originally written), taking out the racial epithets. I don’t disagree with revising the libretto in this way. After all, Ira co-wrote it, so this is a different situation from the revision of Huckleberry Finn by someone far removed from Mark Twain. The problem I have is that there is no indication that this is a revision. I doubt there are many people at all, even musical historians, who know that there was an earlier published version of this score. The original version has been forgotten. The harsh racist slurs of the original version give a different flavor to the opera. The audience views the story from the point of view of the poor black people on the outskirts of Charleston South Carolina — certainly an unusual vantage point for white people in the 1920s — and the wonderful music and poignant story make them sympathize with these characters. Perhaps for the first time the racial slurs that white people so casually used at that time were heard from the point of view of the recipients. The impression one gets listening to the current edition of the opera is that the Gershwin brothers were very circumspect for their time in avoiding use of racial hate words. And unless someone uncovers the very earliest edition of the score, there is no way to tell otherwise.
Why do we want to change the past? How is anyone in the future going to understand our past if we actively alter it? Why are some words so taboo that just saying them can end careers? Why do we allow any words to have that kind of power? Political correctness goes too far if it erases our past and emasculates (very politically incorrect word!) our art and literature.