Mark Twain has been on my reading list this week. I'm about half way through Tom Sawyer and when I've finished it I'll be reading Huckleberry Finn. I probably last read them both when I was at primary school, but something that happened last week prompted me to download them to read again.
If you were on Mars last week you might have missed the news that a small American publishing house is to produce an edition of Huckleberry Finn that has had all references to the N-word replaced with "slave". They were working on the advice of a Twain scholar and their intention was to create a version that would be acceptable for American schools. Instead they caused a worldwide furore, accused of having missed the whole point of the book's shocking anti-slavery message and of attempting to sanitise history by removing references to the episode not to avoid offending the descendants of the slaves but to save the descendants of their owners from embarrassment.
It was interesting to watch the debate unfold. African Americans among those condemning such censorship throwing the word around like confetti, and the inevitable riposte from other quarters along the lines of "If they're allowed to use it why aren't we". Even I can understand the answer to that question, and I live in a country whose lexicon of common racially offensive words does not contain that particular one.
Reappropriation is the process of a minority group adopting a formerly pejorative word as a badge of honour. If you are a follower of hip-hop you might be forgiven for thinking it seems to be well under way for the N-word, but somehow I can't imagine it losing its offensive power to the extent of being used in the same way as queer, fag, or faggot are used within the gay community. (Incidentally both fag and faggot have completely different meanings in the UK from their US-origin meanings in a gay context)
A friend of mine who identifies herself as a full-time crossdresser will not suffer the word tranny to be uttered in her presence. To her it is about as bad an insult as could be applied, yet other people of my acquaintance are busy reappropriating it as quickly as they can. They seem never to miss an opportunity to use the T-word in reference to themselves or others in our community.
I find myself uncomfortable with both those standpoints. Because I know there are people who find it offensive it's a word that doesn't appear in my vocabulary very often, yet I understand the others I hear using it are doing so in the best spirit of reappropriation and are not using it as an offensive term. I guess the test I am applying is not to my friends in either camp, but to the general public. My friend who hates the word does so because it has all-too-often been directed at her by unpleasant people, and while that is still the case I who she and others like her are most likely to only meet in my scruffy bloke guise am not going to make those associations by using it.