Elle Cosimano

Scrubbing Down The Past

When I was young, I attended Hebrew school, every week, twice a week. I learned Torah, I prepared to become a Bat Mitzvah, and I learned the holidays, celebrations, and history of my people. For the most part, these were happy lessons. But not all periods of human history are worthy of celebration.

I recall many a Saturday morning, sitting in a darkened room watching video footage and documentaries of the Nazi work camps and death camps of the Holocaust. At the time, we all asked why? Why must we watch these horrifying images over and over again? The crimes committed in those camps were terrifying, offensive, and difficult to accept.

The answer, our teachers told us, is because we risk repeating the atrocities we choose not to remember. Remember it all, they told us… especially the ugly parts, the times in human history that shame us most, so that we never let them happen again.

Some interesting discussions have recently come about regarding the new version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For those who may not be aware, a proposed new version will replace the controversial “N” word with the word “slave.”  The word “Injun” is likely to be replaced as well. The literary community seems torn on the question of whether it is better to get a “scrubbed down” book into the hands of more libraries, schools and teens by presenting a “less offensive” version of the tale, versus the moral and ethical argument of whether it is acceptable or appropriate to alter the published work of a deceased creator.

While I understand both sides of this debate, my concerns lie less in the literary implications than the social and historical ones. What risks do we run when we justify “minor” edits to the stories that reflect our nation’s history? Twain’s book was written in such a way to accurately depict the mindset and prejudices of our country during that time period. We all know and understand why the “N” word is offensive and should never be used today, but I fear that when we “scrub” clean the ugly face of our history, we risk something worse than offending readers. We risk forgetting. And what we forget, we could very well repeat in future generations.

Why is it necessary to polish away the ugly parts of who we were? Why talk down to teens and insult their capacity to have an adult conversation about prejudice and racism? Why not use these books as a launching pad for real conversations about hatred and intolerance and how they shaped the history of our nation?

I worry that this new version of history… this happier, shinier face we paint today… may one day become the only “acceptable” version of our past. What if Twain’s original version eventually disappears, falls out of print for lack of an interested audience, forever to be replaced with the less offensive version we find so much easier to swallow? One hundred years from now, will we forget how much damage name-calling and bigotry can do? Will we look back on the ugly parts of our past less critically? Will we be more accepting of who we were and allow new cycles of violence and atrocity to take root?

Am I over-analyzing the possible impact of erasing two words from our literary history?  I don’t know… for now, maybe it is only two words. But what happens when two minor edits become acceptable? And then two more? And then two hundred more? Will we risk forgetting who we are?

Coincidentally, I just finished reading a remarkable dystopian YA tale called MATCHED by Ally Condie. If you’ve not read it, I highly recommend it, and I apologize in advance for any ***SPOILERS*** in the thoughts I share with you today.

The story takes place in our not too distant future, in a Society that is rigidly controlled. The Society has been completely purged of all historical evidence of anything that could be construed as imperfect, controversial, offensive, or reflects poorly on the image of their world. Entire libraries are destroyed, all artifacts collected and controlled by Officials who ultimately determine what books are allowable, what poems will survive, what music is socially acceptable, and what the people are permitted to know of their own history. The goal of the Society is to present a clean, uniform, content people who are blissfully ignorant of conflict, oppression or rebellion. All members of Society carry pills on their person, by the order of the Officials. The green pill relieves anxiety, and ensures all people are sedated into numb compliance. The red pill makes them forget, and is the band-aid Society uses to cover up the occasional discoveries or ugly memories by those who doubt that the world is as rosy as they’ve been led to believe.

I have to ask myself, is a new version of history our own form of medication? Do we read the new version because we feel more comfortable, less anxious, and better about ourselves? And by doing so, are we also taking a pill that will make us forget?

It is no wonder to me why dystopian fiction has become such a popular genre for teen readers. There are so many comparative lessons to be learned in stories like MATCHED.  I hope we don’t let our history “go gentle into that good night” and risk becoming complacent in our fight to preserve our own humanity. I hope we don’t take that red pill and forget who we were — even our ugly parts — so that we never have to relive them again.


Note: These milestones of our nation’s history are memorialized along the walkway to Great Hopes Plantation in Colonial Williamsburg so that we never forget.