Thursday, January 06, 2011

"Light Out, Huck, They Still Want to Sivilize You"

Yes, it's time for another round of literary sanitation in the name of political correctness.  If you haven't heard, an English professor at Auburn University is protecting us from ourselves in order to preserve a classic for generations to come.  How does he plan to do that?  He has replaced the word nigger with the word slave in THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN.  All 243 times it appears.  His hope is to make the book more palatable and less taboo to parents, teachers, and young readers alike in order to preserve a classic.

While I understand his aim, I have mixed emotions about the ramifications of such a cleansing.  My guts tightened and my brain shuddered when I heard the news.  Who would dare?  But I'm sure many teachers have grown weary of explaining and testing the cultural climate before attempting to teach the text and have abandoned it altogether in the name of job security.  It's a delicate business and believe me, I understand. But there is something more to this issue beside censorship and the political conscience of a modern audience.  For me, it's as simple as integrity.

I taught HUCKELBERRY FINN in the 90's and my students truly "got" it.  Now, keep in mind, I didn't just fling the book at them and dive into it without any context.  That would be ludicrous.  But then teaching any classic without context is not only asinine, but borderline criminal.  In his New York Times article, Michiko Kakutani sums up a crucial point here:

Never mind that today nigger is used by many rappers, who have reclaimed the word from its ugly past. Never mind that attaching the epithet slave to the character Jim — who has run away in a bid for freedom — effectively labels him as property, as the very thing he is trying to escape.

I was teaching high school juniors at the time, and when I announced our next project, several sighed and said, "We already read that in 8th grade."  These were gifted students, mind you, and they had little tolerance for repetition let alone something that has been dubbed a "kid's adventure story."  Yes, that is how it was presented to them the first time around.[shudder] Of course I set them straight and then presented the historical and cultural context, complete with disclaimers about language.  Also consider that the demographics of this school were 49% caucasian, 48% African American, and 3% other (Indian, Iranian, etc.) Moreover, the socio-economic scale reached from the poorest to the wealthiest (children of pro football players and heart surgeons, etc.) who made their own cliques to often surprising ends.  When we had finished, several students remarked that they had read a completely different book. They had no idea that that is what the book was about.  They loved it and each one of them took in the truth that they found there.  

Prof. Gribben hopes to introduce more young people to Huck by sterilizing part of the very social comment that Twain was addressing.  Of course we have seen the term pass through different usages and through its evolution, we have cringed and cursed at the sound of it.  But what is really at the heart of good literature?  Truth.  No matter how ugly, uncomfortable, or embarrassing, if we seek it earnestly, we shall find it.  As teachers, isn't that a large part of our job, to help our students discover their understanding of the world and its naked truth?  

The primary problem is not the text.  The problem is that so many teachers get it wrong.  If you think that boiling down a social commentary like HUCKLEBERRY FINN to nothing more than a jaunt on the Mississippi, than you should not be teaching it to anyone.  The rich, beautiful, harsh story says so much about Twain's understanding of a country that had just come through a firestorm, not unscathed, not instantly wiser, and certainly not romantically mussed up, but truly, brutally scarred.  This isn't a book about friendship and acceptance.  This is a book about honor and truth and clarity.  Where is the honor and truth and clarity in eviscerating the text and subjugating the context? 

In the end, Huck doesn't necessarily see all slaves as equals, but he does see Jim as a man—an honorable, brave man—and a friend.  Mark Twain simply asked that we look at him, that we look at ourselves, that we see this country as it was, warts and all and consider the truth.  Don't look away now because it makes you uncomfortable.  You'll miss the most important parts. 


  1. I think you touch on the heart of the issue for teachers: how to teach Huckleberry Finn. Unfortunately, too many school teachers find it too risky to deal with the novel's adult issues, so they avoid it or reduce it to "a kid's adventure story." (By the way, it IS a kid's adventure story, and I have no problem with kid's reading it as such, with the hopes that when they are ready, then they will read it as more than that.)

    All students want an education that is relevant to them, and racism is relevant to most of our students in some way. I fear that political correctness will stop teachers from addressing too many of the issues that engage students in real conversation about their worlds. Too bad.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Mary Ann! Please consider adding your blog or at least use this post as a first blog of a new QEP blog of yours to our ASU QEP site.

    Did Prof. Gribben indicate that his improved version is for certain age groups and not for everyone?


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