Notice: Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted. Persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished. Persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. ~ Opening lines from Huckleberry Finn.
I read a story this week where a white suburban DC mom wanted to have Toni Morrison’s Beloved banned, because she said it depicted slavery as “gross.” I am guessing she has no problem with Mammy and Prissy, though.
I will never understand people like her. Where did she get the idea she could decide what every kid in her school district reads? Why doesn’t she focus on her own kid, and let the rest of us do the same?
I remember my girls bought home a form asking my permission before they read Catcher in the Rye. If I didn’t want them to read it, they suggested a different book the student could read instead. A perfectly logical solution. When my youngest brought home that form, I was so tempted to write on it, “She’s read it twice already!”
I’ve been thinking about censorship because I am rereading what is probably the most challenged book in American high schools. Huck Finn. Oh dear, oh dear, how can we subject our children to that word that is in there over 200 times? Sigh. Life is never that black or white, you’ll pardon the pun.
The question is not whether this book should be read. (It must! It must!) It’s a question of does it need to be taught in every classroom? It’s a different learning experience teaching it to 30 white kids than it is teaching it to a class of 25 white kids and 5 black kids.
“You’re a white lady! What do you possibly know about racism?”
You’ve got me there. Let me try to put it into some kind of perspective that hits closer to home. What if my girls were in a classroom with 28 boys, reading a book that used the C-Word 200 times?
OK, that’s stupid, the C-Word never had the same historical lineage as the N-Word. The C-Word was never a commonly used word to describe women by one segment of society.
Aside: It’s not that I don’t use bad words or swear words. I do. But I don’t think I’ve ever vocalized the C-Word in my life so I’m not about to write it.
Can we count on every educator in the country to teach this book with the sensitivity it deserves? No, I don’t think we can. But assuming 17- and 18-year olds are going to be reading it, and assuming they’ve learned about the Civil War already, and about slavery, and assuming they know not to use the N-Word, you explain to them why Mark Twain is about to throw that word in their face on every other page.
And then you make them watch Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.
It’s a dreadful movie, except Morgan Freeman, Severus Snape and some stunningly beautiful woman is in it. There’s a scene where Robin and his men are plotting an attack, and in the blink of an eye, he includes a woman in the plans. A woman. Being treated as an equal to men. In a combat situation. In Medieval times. Can you please spare me the political correctness that our 20 Century selves feel necessary to bring to period pieces?
That is no different than changing the N-Word to slave and Injun to Indian in recent versions of Huck Finn. Can’t we just teach students it’s a damn ugly world we live in, and America never got any uglier than the Antebellum South? Because as sure as shooting, in twenty years, the next generation of nervous young parents are going to insist we remove the word slave and change it to African American and the word Indian to Native American.
It seems easier to teach students that Mark Twain was a white man living in a slave state and he had a deep hatred of slavery. If you don’t believe me, you’ve never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
You do not censor the author. Ever. Period. Students deserve explanations; they don’t need everything sanitized.
Besides the frequent use of the N-Word, Huck Finn gets a lot of criticism for its stereotypical depiction of Jim, especially early on. He’s uneducated and superstitious. Which makes him exactly like Huck. If you don’t think most poor people living in the 1840’s were just like that, whether black or white, than I need Kevin Costner to stop directing this movie.
The other main criticism is that there are other books, better books to teach about racism, from To Kill a Mockingbird to Invisible Man, and I do see the point, but it’s glossing over what makes Huck Finn spectacular.
The first time we see Huck and Tom encounter Jim in the book, they are cruel to him. And Huck is even crueler when they first bump into each other on the island. That is what Huck was taught his whole life, from his overtly racist drunk of a father, to the Southern society he lived in, to the law. It wasn’t until Huck and Jim started their slow meandering trip down the Mississippi that Huck started to see Jim as a person and not as a slave.
As the raft winds down to Cairo, it finally dawns on Huck what he’s doing. He’s helping a runaway slave escape into a free state. He first thinks how wrong that is; that’s what he’s been taught his whole life. He’s conflicted because Jim is Miss Watson’s slave, and she mostly never did him any harm. She tried to educate him and teach him manners and how could he ever face her knowing he did nothing to help her and stop Jim? And when the slave catchers came, he just up and lied to them to protect Jim. (If you read too much Twain, you start hearing his speech patterns in your head.) He knew he did wrong by helping Jim get away, but decided he would feel just as bad if he got him caught. He decided the hell with morality and the law and what society has taught him. He went with his instincts. With apologies to Mark Twain for finding a moral in his story, he was torn between doing what he was supposed to do and doing what he actually thinks is right. Sometimes kids see through the garbage adults teach them and figure out the right thing all by themselves. Damn, this book could have been written last week.
Besides the teeming social significance, it’s just a hoot of a book. It was never intended as a children’s book, as evidenced by all the Shakespeare the Duke and the King mess up, but it’s a great adventure tale that will interest even the laziest of readers. Early on, when Miss Watson is trying to “sivilize” Huck, he realizes how much he hates it. She said if he didn’t behave he would go to the other place. Huck decides she will surely go to heaven, and he couldn’t see any advantage in going where she’d be. He’d rather do hell with Tom. That must have gone over well with 1860’s readers. And in the last quarter of the book, Tom Sawyer shows up again, in all his Tom Sawyerness.
I know lots of people complain that the dialect is too difficult to read, but if you’ve mastered this: i think this was stupid of u 2 write. ur downgrating girls bc how we write? thats so ignorant of u 2 do bc guys do it 2 if not worse. soooooo gettt overrrr itttt!!!!!! LAME!!!, u can read Huck.
It’s a fun book. Twain is a very funny writer. You should read it. Then go read Beloved.