The New Huck Finn vs. Yale's Big Book of Rap Lyrics

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

The news that Auburn University English professor Alan Gribben is bringing out an edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the 219 uses of the word “nigger” have been replaced with the word “slave,” has occasioned a torrent of commentary, most of it at Professor Gribben’s expense. Gribben has his defenders, who believe a sanitized Huck Finn will have a better chance of reaching young readers in today’s classrooms, especially young minority readers. But he has been lambasted by many guardians of the public good for his treachery to history and literature. My fellow Innovations blogger, Marybeth Gasman, states the case against the bowdlerized edition of Twain’s masterpiece literary succinctly: “Although I abhor the N-word, sanitizing history does not sit right with me.” She fears it is one more step toward “collective amnesia” about the nation’s shameful racist past.

This seems like a good occasion therefore to celebrate Yale University Press’s release of its 867-page, 2 pound, 12.8 ounce The Anthology of Rap. I haven’t attempted to count the instances of the “N-word” in the volume, but I am fairly sure they clock in at a number well in excess of Huck Finn’s 219. Moreover, most of the instances of “nigger” in Twain’s book represent casual speech—the author’s effort to capture the spoken word in a remembered past, Missouri in the 1840s. The lyrics gathered in the new Yale anthology, by contrast, are instruments of aggression. Few of them are quotable (or at least I don’t feel like quoting them) but here is a relatively mild couplet from “Brooklyn Zoo” by the Wu-Tang Clan:

I’m homicidal when you enter the target

Nigga, get up. Act like a pig trying to hog s–t

Which proceeds to a description that combines the sexual degradation and murder of the rapper’s adversary.

I am not particularly squeamish about rap. Much of it is profoundly vulgar stuff and intentionally offensive, but of course a great deal of art in the last century set up permanent camp in that precinct. And as far as turning verbal anger into a public spectacle, there was Allen Ginsberg back in 1956 telling America, “Go f— yourself with your atom bomb.”  We have since made more than one art form out of ostentatious display of anger—what I called “new anger,” in A Bee in the Mouth. Anger itself, of course, is nothing new. But valorizing anger as creative, liberating, empowering, and making it a wellspring of identity and pride is a cultural novelty that began to take shape in the 1950s. Rap is essentially a deranged daughter of this exhibitionism.

Unless I say it first, someone is sure to declare that it makes all the difference that African-American artists are re-appropriating the N-word for their own purposes. I don’t know that it makes much difference at all, since the main market for rap has always been white suburban teenagers. Moreover, as the linguist John McWhorter pointed out in 2003:

Many writers and thinkers see a kind of informed political engagement, even a revolutionary potential, in rap and hip-hop. They couldn’t be more wrong. By reinforcing the stereotypes that long hindered blacks, and by teaching young blacks that a thuggish adversarial stance is the properly “authentic” response to a presumptively racist society, rap retards black success.

The Anthology of Rap is edited by Adam Bradley, an English professor at the University of Colorado, and Andre DuBois, an English professor at the University of Toronto, and sports a foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and a 70-page appendix of “Lyrics for Further Study,” as though the ideal reader has spent the preceding 700 pages in scholarly lucubration over lines like Young Jeezy’s “no president ever did s–t for me.” But there can be no doubt that this is a book that takes itself seriously and demands that others do too. Two afterwords by the rappers Chuck D and Common reinforce the conceit. Chuck D declares, “The Anthology of Rap is a landmark text.” Common advises the reader, “What you hold in your hands is more than a book. This is a culture. This is hip-hop.”

I’m not inclined to dispute them. But not every landmark is a cause for celebration and not every “culture” is destined to make a positive contribution to the sum of human achievement. We’ll have to see whether forced rhymes and pell-mell meter such as this from Hieroglyphics’ “Virus”—

I wanna devise a virus

To bring dire straits to your environment

Crush your corporations with a mild touch

Trash your whole computer system and revert you to papyrus.

—survive the test of time. Most poetry in any genre does not, and occasionally ingenious wordplay seasoned with vituperation and vulgarity does not look like an especially good prospect.

Or to me it doesn’t. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has an altogether brighter view of rap’s future, as well as a more reverential view of its origins. He traces it, as have others, to black vernacular games such as “playing the dozens” and “signifying.” The genealogy is probably right at one level. Rap surely continues the tradition of competitive performances. But that tradition doesn’t all explain the turn to (in Gates’ words) the “crass and pornographic.” Gates quotes himself from his expert witness testimony at the1990 obscenity trial for 2 Live Crew, whisking away that aspect of their Nasty as They Want to Be album, by declaring: “what you hear is great humor, great joy, and great boisterousness. It’s a joke. It’s a parody and parody is one of the most venerable forms of art.”

Gates is, on the evidence, indeed an expert on parody and certainly the right choice to write a scholarly introduction to this important tome.

And if, after reading the new sanitized Huckleberry Finn you find yourself in need of a bracing reminder of what racial epithets look like on the printed page, the Anthology of Rap will restore you. None of this is to imply that the academic world should turn a blind eye to popular culture in general or rap in particular. The latest issue of Academic Questions, my organization’s quarterly journal, is in fact focused on “Popular Culture and the Academy.” The general theme is that the academy should pay attention to the songs, music, movies, television shows, and other entertainments that saturate ordinary life, but a crucial part of the task is to draw distinctions between the stuff that enriches us and the stuff that diminishes. The Anthology of Rap may not be entirely in the key of corrosiveness, but a great deal of it exists in a realm of “anguished incoherency” and “brutal eroticism,” to borrow the words of one of one of the journal contributors.

I did have one nagging thought as I paged though lyrics by NWA, Run-DMC, Ice Cube, Jay-Z, 2Pac, 50 Cent, Eminem, Ludacris, and Kanye West. Yale University Press got some heat in the summer of 2009 when it decided to drop from a forthcoming book, The Cartoons that Shook the World by Jytte Klausen, the images of the cartoons that had occasioned the international controversy. The editors quailed at the prospect of angering Muslims and attempted to hide behind “advice” they solicited from outside expertsThe Anthology of Rap somehow leaves me with the sense of a bunch of well-cosseted editors congratulating themselves on their cutting-edge fearlessness for printing some naughty words and daring to treat with unctuous respect a collection of low-brow racial rants. Same editors? Something to ponder as we drift down the Mississippi again on Huck’s newly refurbished raft of words.   

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