It’s that time again. Another round of the predictable outcry in a school district over Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
(A good opinion piece about it by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, here.)
The argument is always the same: Twain’s use (a zillion times) of the word “nigger” is insulting and racist, and not appropriate for discussion by students in this enlightened time. His novels should be banned–or worse–rewritten to remove the offensive words.
This fight always leaves me very cranky.
First, because I have always secretly disliked the novels of Mark Twain, which is like hating puppies. I’ve made a vow to try them again this year, just in case my literary tastes have matured. So, stay tuned on that.
Second: Why is it that the opponents to Twain’s writing are almost always such obvious misfits? Unpopular professors seeking to make a name for themselves; wacky PTA presidents, pastors of some church way, way off the mainline.
I’ve always wondered why Twain gets picketed and Louisa May Alcott doesn’t. God knows there is more truth in his view than hers…what family is as happy as the March clan? As for bad influences: Clearly Jo was a lesbian who marries that old guy just to get out of the house. And what about Beth’s mysterious death? Oh, and P.S., maybe Daddy March ought to get a real job, hmmmm?
For months now I’ve been working on a project that has me immersed in reading about our sinful history of slavery; of lynching, the civil rights movement and, more recently, Vietnam. Erasing this hateful word from literature doesn’t erase that history. It just makes it a bit easier to pretend it didn’t happen.
Here’s what I know for sure: We can’t learn and change without reading and seeing the stuff of the past. And if we don’t teach kids the nuance and import of context, they are royally screwed. Left without one of the most important tools for making decisions and forming personal ethics.
Here’s an idea: You educators, parents and others who fear that the language of Twain will embarrass or disrespect or corrupt our youth — why don’t you go to work on a study guide that runs through the various points of view on the matter. Tell us how and why it became unacceptable to call a grown African American man, “boy.” Explain why it took so long for the big newspapers to use Mr. or Mrs. or Miss when referring to black people–just as they did when writing about white folks. Trace the timing and thought behind the migration from “colored” to “negro” to “Negro” to “black” to “Black” to “Afro-American” to “African American” to a person of color.
Sanitizing language is silly. It’s a teaching moment, so get on with it.
In 100 years someone will be agitating to ban your study guide. I promise.