Sunday, March 23, 2008

Old-Time Story Censorship?

On a Comics History email list I am on, there has been discussion on whether  "many academics are intentionally perpetuating racism" or whether "some academics are un-intentionally perpetuating racism," by reprinting and even writing admiringly about some old comics that would be interpreted as racist by today's audiences. This is a difficult subject, because historical accuracy may demand that those hurtful images be included in scholarly studies, but common decency may require that they be left out. Well, this does not just apply to comics scholarship, to be sure.

I posted this message to my email group, and present it here, more or less as it appeared:

When I go through old stories to read in Mister Ron's Basement, there are quite a few that may have seemed harmless a hundred and fifty years ago or so, but I simply can't bring myself to present them. The odd things are stories that inadvertently include hurtful words or expressions that are not crucial to the stories. I myself feel that it really is not academically incorrect to remove or slightly change those references if it manages to bring a forgotten old storyteller to life in modern times.

Examples might include more than one George Ade story where he used the term "c--n songs" to refer to popular music that is not "high-brow." In those cases, I simply call them "songs." Is this academically reprehensible? I don't think so; not if the alternative is to leave otherwise delightful stories dead and forgotten. 

I ran into some particularly difficult times reading stories by William Tappan Thompson, a great southern writer whose tales often featured slaves and black servants referred to with the "N" word. Usually those characters were incidental to the story, so once again, I saw no problem using the term "servant" or something like that. 

If I was reading something like "Huckleberry Finn," or perhaps "The Weeping Time" by Philander Doesticks, where the use of certain words were intrinsic to the story line and the characters were treated with absolute respect, then I would have no problem using those terms.

Do I have the right to make those judgement calls? Well, legally, yes. The stories are in the public domain, and I can do whatever I want with them. Morally and ethically, some might argue that I do not have the right, but to me, the overriding concern is to make these long buried treasures palatable to a modern audience. 

One that same note, I have so far refrained from reading M. Quad's "Lime Kiln Club" stories, and anything by Joel Chandler Harris because they may be misinterpreted. Oddly enough, some of Harris's stories, presented in what he considered "authentic southern Negro speech" at the time were actually derived from Cherokee Indian legends.

On a cartooning note, something similar happened about twenty years ago, when a popular book of old-time cartoons of cats was published, and it featured A. B. Frost's "A Fatal Mistake," the panel showing the black butler being scared with his hair standing on end by the dying cat was left out. Was this proper? Maybe. Although I have an 1888 edition of "Stuff and Nonsense" with that picture and it doesn't seem demeaning to my sensibilities, when the Butler is compared to the other characters.

How do you feel? Am I being "unscholarly"? Your opinions are welcome...

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