In the last post, I introduced a badge task mash-up with an overview of the dinner I got to make for the lovely women of my book club. I’m finishing the mash-up today by actually talking about the controversial book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Our discussion about the use of the n-word in literature was softened by a lovely Greek dinner.
Perhaps you heard that Huck Finn was in the news early this year. ‘s Professor Alan Gribbon created a revision to this classic that replaces all 219 appearances of the “n-word” with the word “slave.” His reason? This American classic has been increasingly banned from high schools, in part because the n-word is charged with enormous emotion and connotation; its meaning has changed, and Professor Gribbon hopes that this version will help it reappear on junior year reading lists nationwide.
Huck Finn, by the way, has actually been published in many languages without the n-word.
This new version has its supporters who find Professor Gribbon’s actions well-intentioned and not without merit. It also has its detractors, like Princeton Professor Cornel West. Read his tweets on the subject.
I immediately fell into the You-Can’t-Put-A-Loincloth-on-Michelangelo’s-David camp, but that was my knee-jerk reaction to modifying a work of art.
So before I got too comfortable on my high horse, I selected Huck Finn as the book club’s reading, knowing full well the conversation would be thoughtful. It was.
Huck Finn’s message is decidedly anti-slavery. Written over several years after the Civil War, it’s set before said war, when slaves were at best (and Constitutionally), considered 3/5 of a person–property to be bought and sold at will, like farm animals. Huck, made wealthy by the adventures found in Tom Sawyer, isn’t all that crazy about “civilizin’,” and he fakes his own death in order to, well, get away from it all. (This, imho, makes him wise beyond his years.) After landing on an island on the Mississippi, he encounters the runaway slave, Jim, and together they ride the Mississippi in–literally and figuratively–calm and stormy water.
By putting Huck and Jim in a natural setting, outside the constructs of civilized life, Twain allows Huck to develop his own sense of ethics and values. In the moment he decides that he won’t turn Jim in as a runaway slave, his own moral compass becomes fully formed:
“I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll GO to hell.'”
But what about that word?
No members of book club were troubled at having read it, but we could certainly see the challenges posed by teaching the text to high schoolers. We discussed how the n-word seems to be liberally used by students of all races today, as witnessed by the casually peppered use of it in Facebook comments between young friends. (Yes, a lot of us are actually Facebook friends with many of the young ‘uns, and we tend to observe conversations rather than interject). We had no problem understanding that it could be hard for a classroom to get beyond a discussion of this word to get to the larger themes.
Our general conclusion:
- We believe it’s nuts to doctor a work of art or great literature.
- We believe censorship is just plain wrong.
- We believe Huck Finn should be taught as a classic American work of literature.
- We believe that high schoolers may not currently possess a level of sophistication that makes it possible to teach Huck Finn with any degree of depth.
In other words, it’s complicated.
It might have been nice to have found the Perfect Solution to this issue over diples and wine, but I felt pretty comforted by our conclusion that this a very complex issue.
Use of the n-word is understandably hyper-charged, the book may need to be taught with an extra dose of historical context. Problematically, most high school classrooms today are increasingly crowded, and teachers report having less and less time to focus on anything other than simple comprehension.
We considered the possibility that this book now belongs at the college level; older students are more likely to have the sophistication to read the original content in its historical context, and American Lit classes and seminars are more likely to provide an atmosphere that encourages meaningful and engaging dialogue.
So that’s our two cents.