I wrote this as a comment elsewhere, but I think it deserves a spot of its own.
Isn’t one giant issue with the entire substitution that students aren’t going to know Huck used the word if their teachers don’t tell them he did?
Because they’re going to have to do so. Otherwise, Twain’s novel is changed completely. Doesn’t it entirely change the nature of the relationship between Huck and Jim? Doesn’t it entirely change Jim’s character and his motivations?
Do we really trust teachers to prequel every reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with that information?
Teacher: “Now class, we’re about to read what was once a very controversial novel, but we’ve made it more appropriate for your reading pleasure.”
Student: “How did you do that?”
Teacher: “We changed a word.”
Student: “Just one? Which one? Did Twain drop the f-bomb? I didn’t realize they had the f-bomb back then.”
Teacher: “No, it’s more egregious than the f-bomb.”
Student: “What’s ‘egregious’ mean?”
Teacher: “Bad. It was worse than the f-bomb.”
Student: “Worse than the f-bomb? What’s worse than the f-bomb? Did he say the c-word?”
Teacher: “Er. What’s the c-word?”
Student: “You know. The c-word. Rhymes with bunt.”
Teacher: “Where did you learn that word?! Er. But no. Not that one.”
Student: “Well which one? What’s the first letter?”
Student: “N? Er. What begins with ‘n’? Nincompoop? That’s not so bad.”
Teacher: “It wasn’t nincompoop.”
Student: “Um. Nutcracker?”
Teacher: “No. It was a word people used to call black people.”
Student: “Oh. You mean ‘nigger’?”
Teacher: “Yes, precisely. That’s what Huck used to call Jim. Now he calls him a ’slave.’”
Student: “But then that whole description of Jim’s having been a ‘free slave’ doesn’t make much sense.”
Teacher: “Well. Perhaps not. But we’ve avoided using a terrible word.”
Student: “‘Nigger’? Well, yeah, it’s awful, but Kanye and Tupac say it all the time. Why not Twain? It’s just his book. He was writing, like, 100 years ago. It was a lot different then, wasn’t it? It’s not like white folks go around dropping the world all willy-nilly now, is it? Honestly, you’ve wasted a lot of valuable time doing something trivial when we could have been discussing race in American in the 1800s and how it’s evolved, both in publishing and in culture, over the past century and a half. Honestly. What are you getting paid for, anyway?”