A Sterile Constitution
In an attempt I will likely regret to move the continuation of the Civil War/War-Between (Among?)-the-States/War of Northern “Aggression”/War of Southern Interests in the Preservation of Chattel Slavery (did I cover all potential names there? everyone satisfied?) away from my post on True Grit, I want to note the juxtaposition of a bowdlerized Huckleberry Finn and the reading of a bowdlerized Constitution in Congress today.
In that vein, I should also point out that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ and League-alum Jamelle Bouie’s comments on a “nigger”-free Huck Finn are more or less on the money regarding the Constitution, as well:
But erasing “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn—or ignoring our failures—doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t provide racial enlightenment, or justice, and it won’t shield anyone from the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. All it does is feed the American aversion to history and reflection. Which is a shame. If there’s anything great about this country, it’s in our ability to account for and overcome our mistakes. Peddling whitewashed ignorance diminishes America as much as it does our intellect.
I am remembered to the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor, who aptly noted that when people whitewash Robert E. Lee, and claim he was anti-slavery, what they are implicitly claiming is that the actual Robert E. Lee—one of the greatest generals of the past two centuries—isn’t good enough.
This is actually much worse, because the invocation of nigger by Twain is not a moral failing. But because of our needs, Twain isn’t good enough. Because we can’t handle the story of who we were, and evidently who we are, Twain must be summoned up from the dead and, all against himself, submitted before the edits of amateurs.
Of course, the original wording of the Constitution wasn’t good enough in this regard — but, ultimately, America became good enough to make this change to the Constitution. In that sense, the Constitution is a record of America’s conversation with itself over what it — America and the Constitution — are and should be. Ignoring that the text was not born perfect — was, indeed, born with parts that are now nothing short of reprehensible — is to elide the struggle that this change required, and which has defined the nation that grew up around the Constitution. After all:
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”