Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Here's something that's not going to go over well: I think it's just fine to take the n-word out of Huckleberry Finn. Not forever, not in the definitive version or the Norton edition or whatever -- but in a version for teaching in high schools: sure. Do it. The word's meaning has changed and become loaded with complicated baggage and what Twain meant is no longer obvious. The word gets too much attention, titillates some kids, shuts other kids down. Conversations about the book end up being about that word. Replace it with some asterisks and get on with it.

I taught school in my twenties, and I had classes that were 100% African-American, was sometimes the only white person in the room. Handing my students a text with that word in it would have made me feel sick, sad, and abusive. Sure, we could have talked about it, put it in its correct historical context, had a powerful conversation about who makes the language, who owns it, etc. But at the end of the day, what would the kids remember? Let's be realistic. Their teacher used the n-word.

It's possible that my views on the subject have to do with my unresolved, unexcavated, feelings about those teaching years. And maybe I don't think kids are ready for Mark Twain at all. Could be.

But I also don't think there's much wrong with "censorship" when it's done by an adult for children. I don't let my kids watch Quentin Tarantino, either. And no text is sacred. I mean, thought Jane Austen was sacred, but look: now it's full of zombies.


D said...

I think the real question you're raising is this: would anyone want to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Vampire Death Squad? 'Cause if there's anything that Mark Twain's oeuvre lacks it's a book based on killing vampires.

Pete said...

It is critical kids learn the painful truths about American history. Art is one way, maybe the ideal way, to confront these issues in the classroom. I can't agree with the premise.

I started to comment about the "discomfort" of a white teacher vs the racism / slavery that your black students and their ancestors undoubtedly experience(d), but I felt like a hypocrite. I am white, and would never be able to lead a discussion of racism and slavery, featuring the 'n' word, with a class of black students. I see your point there.

rmellis said...

The painful truths of history are only painful to some students, unfortunately. It doesn't seem appropriate to heap more pain and suffering on kids who've already had a shitload of it.

Pete said...

I hadn't considered that. I guess I'm commenting from my perspective as a white person who grew up in a primarily white community.

I didn't realize how horrible the American story really was until after my schooling ended.... our history is marketed to kids as a big red white and blue parade, brave men in white wigs declaring liberty and justice for all, turkey dinners with our new friends, etc.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a really, really good post, and I almost agree with it. In the end, I do not think anyone should change the text of "Huckleberry Finn." Period. BUT it is worth acknowledging that this might cause people like Rhian, a white woman teaching a classroom full of black kids, to just say "fuck Twain" and teach something that won't cause bad feelings. Or, indeed, cause African-American readers to abandon the guy on their own.

I guess I'm subscribing to a kind of literary Darwinism here--survival of the fittest. If Huck Finn doesn't have what it takes to go the distance, then Huck Finn loses.

AC said...

I agree that it may be time to move Huckleberry Finn out of the high school English curriculum and into college courses that deal with the history of American Lit or with treatments of race in literature. That's the only place you'd read The Last of the Mohicans now, and that used to be considered a literary classic too. My high school English teacher strained desperately to invest Huck Finn with deep, universal themes (the river as a metaphor for life, etc.) but doesn't it really work better as a humorous social commentary on 19th century America?

I wonder though if the concern over the emotional impact of reading Huckleberry Finn is really warranted.

I was one of three white kids at my otherwise all-black elementary school, so I got a hearty helping of African American history early on. Have you noticed that the "important" black-themed books for intermediate readers are incredibly depressing? Sounder? Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry? I don't know how these constant reminders of murder and cruelty in the bad old days made my classmates feel. They certainly didn't spark any classroom discussion. And I don't know either what they thought about Huckleberry Finn because I went on to an all-white private high school. I can't help but think that if it was me, I'd find the constant respectful bludgeoning with reminders of truly vicious racism more painful than seeing the n-word in an ironic adventure story that ends with the white hero resigning himself to a life of outlawry and successfully freeing his slave friend from the authorities. But those books would undoubtedly be more comfortable for me to teach if I was a white woman with a class of black students.

5 Red Pandas said...

I was and am in a similar situation where the majority of my students are non-white. I never taught Huck Finn but I taught one class called the language of argument and I chose articles and essays on controversial topics. One of those topics was the "N" word. The way I introduced the topic was to say that while many of my students use the word, or a form of the word, I as a teacher, and as a non-African American don't feel like I can ever use the word (or would ever want to). Then we read several pieces written by African American authors that discussed the history of the word, and the way it's used and its various meanings and intents. It was a really interesting and engaging discussion. Latino students had to examine why they use the word, African American students examined how they felt about Latino students appropriating the word. Some students decided that they didn't want to use the word any longer, even in a context where the word was appropriated for a new meaning. I think if I had to teach Huck I would do something similar, and also give lots of context.

I think it's important that you feel comfortable getting into these types of issues, because if you are, and are ready for uncomfortable (but often rewarding) conversations then there can be many positive outcomes. If you're not comfortable, your students will more likely be uncomfortable discussing these things in class. Many of my students didn't think about using the "n" word and the discussion we had was one of the first times they stopped to think about what it means to use it as a slang term.

I don't think the word should be excised from Huck Finn at all. I think it's a slippery slope and I always opt for discussion of uncomfortable issues rather than censoring them. I guess it's easier now since I'm a librarian and I'm no longer imposing books and ideas on students. I simply give them options.

When I was a kid I was uncomfortable when I read some things that had negative stereotypes about Chinese people, but a teacher explained the context of the stereotype. It was an odd moment because I was excited to read something that made mention of an Asian character, but because it was such an ugly stereotype I was more driven to find books that countered that stereotype. I think this is something that can happen with Huck Finn. You can pair that book with books that complement the historical depiction, or give a counter to the stereotypes and ugliness. In fact, I think doing something like that would make the experience of reading Huck Finn even more valuable and nuanced.

rmellis said...

D, Pete, AC, and Adalena -- great comments, thank you! I taught elementary school and I think the issues are probably very different there from my own experiences, where little kids were just *discovering* racism in all its horrible forms. I could see it being a part of great lesson for older kids.

However, I still also see the value in saying, This word offends me, screw it: it's gone! But always with a tag saying "expurgated version" or whatever -- a grand old tradition.