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Miss Watson’s n--ger, Jim, had a hair-ball as big as your fist, which had been took out of the fourth stomach of an ox, and he used to do magic with it. He said there was a spirit inside of it, and it knowed everything.

I know that the N-word in modern English is highly offensive. However, this text is from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. It was originally published in 1884. At this time, the meaning of nigger is probably different from now.

Disclaimer: This is just a question about a word usage. I don't mean to provoke or be offensive.

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  • What are you asking - was it acceptable in 1884, or is it acceptable now, or should modern editions of Huckleberry Finn be amended with dashes in those places, or something else? Mar 3 at 15:24
  • @MichaelHarvey What I am asking is: is the n-word used in the offensive sense in this book (1884)? Because in modern English, it can also be used without being offensive to refer to a friend: eg "What's going on, my N-gga". Mar 3 at 15:27
  • It just meant 'black person' in 1884. Opinions differ about whether 'Nigga' is offensive when used by people of colour. Mar 3 at 15:29
  • Thank you Micheal. Mar 3 at 15:38
  • This might be more of a history or literature question, since it's about how the word was perceived in 1884.
    – stangdon
    Mar 3 at 15:56

3 Answers 3

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N--ger has always meant that black people are inferior to white people. But the book takes place around 1840 in America when most white people thought that was true. Jim was a slave. Saying the N-word really was common then, and wouldn't shock anyone since white people said it all the time and believed such a horrible thing. Calling him "N-word Jim" always meant calling him stupid, lazy and so on.

But Huck obviously likes and respects Jim. He's only calling him N-Jim since he's a kid and doesn't know any better and thinks that's Jim's real name. Mark Twain was purposely making us think about why we use such a horrible word by having Huck use it in a nice way.

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This is somewhat debatable from today's perspective. There are in fact institutions in the USA where reading Huckleberry Finn has been taken off the curriculum precisely because of this issue.

Probably the rationale is dominantly that they don't want to expose young readers to this language out of fear that they won't be able to discern how this was once acceptable but isn't now, but there is arguably also an element of genuinely censoring Mark Twain.

The English Wikipedia article on the word has a section about "Cultural use" of the word which is currently almost exclusively about this book.

Whether Twain, or his protagonist, were "innocently" using the word, or intending it to be demeaning, isn't really decidable. On one hand, that's how the word was used back then. On the other, it certainly was in some senses demeaning, because that was the dominant attitude towards black people in American society in those days.

As the book's story arc develops, Huck's attitude towards Jim becomes more warm and sympathetic, and it's not hard to imagine that bringing readers to the same conclusion was one of Twain's motives for writing the book.

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Yes, use of the N-word is racist. You can put Huckleberry Finn in historical context to understand that the N-word was once used widely, hence it being written in the book without censorship. But even back then, the N-word was used to discriminate. You would have to ask a sociologist or a historian to get a proper answer on how social attitudes towards racism and racist language have changed over time.

Also, the N-word in Huckleberry Finn is not an example of reappropriation. Your comment about how the N-word gets used in the modern day completely misses the mark on this.

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