Should we Sanitize The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

by Pattie Sloan and Joan Flora: two teachers challenging classroom status quo

Ah, the classroom.  This is where the magic begins.   Most of us feel comfortable in our teacher-skin.  We are  with people we love, equipping them to be better readers, writers, and critical thinkers. And we have been trained and in-serviced, master-degreed and small-grouped trained to the point where we think we should be able to face all of the classroom situations that come our way with that group of people we love.  And we do it all  with a smile on our faces.  Yeah, right!

Ponder what your thoroughly trained response would be  be if:

  • Your students inform you your  slacks are on inside out.  (I didn’t say it was me; let’s say it was my colleague.  Yes, that’s the ticket….)
  • Your students inform you that you have on two different shoes – and not just two different shoes-one  a flat and the other a loafer.  ( My principal saw me that morning but didn’t say anything because he assumed it was another of my crazy innovative teaching ideas.  Joan’s golden retriever chewed off the entire tip of her shoe, and she didn’t notice it until third period).

or

  • You have to confront the use of the N-word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Where is the magic now? Honestly, it  is much easier for us to beat a path to the restroom to right our faux-pax rather than face one of the most emotionally charged words in our culture.

Remembering the Nobility of Jim: 

Jim’s character is one of the few noble characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  All the other characters actively demonstrate:

  • lying
  • greed
  • prejudice
  • hypocrisy

The characters of the novel are:

  • con-artists
  • hypocritical Christians
  • child abusers
  • drunkards

Jim remains steadfast:images

  • gentle
  • compassionate
  • honest
  • devoted
  • He is a family man, a slave, running away to  unite with his family.  He weeps for the loss of his family and for slapping his daughter in anger.

Our problem:

In our character study of Jim, the truly noble runaway slave, we are confronted with the use of N-word, and it is our job as educators to reconcile the ugly word with the nobility of his character  to our students.

  • Fact to remember: the book is set in the South during the time of slavery, but was actually written after the abolishment of slavery.  Twain demonstrates his disgust for the ongoing treatment of blacks by a white society.  It’s easy to forget, in 2014, that Huckleberry Finn is stinging social satire, not just an entertaining novel.

Consider this article from Teaching ToleranceStraight Talk About the N-Word:

Educator Neal A. Lester understood the complexity of the word and taught the first college class on the N-word.  While making this is an uncomfortable topic to discuss, and most teachers are not prepared to discuss the word and the power that if has in our lives and in the lives of our students.

Junior English, Huck Finn, and the magical way of curriculum:

Every year I am faced with this discussion as we open the novel.  My students, not surprisingly,  are loathe to discuss even the use of the word in the novel.  I think that is unhealthy because they need to come together and share openly a plan on how we are going to handle the word in our discussions.

Avoidance is not a plan.  But students would rather skirt the issue than discuss the pain this word has brought to so many.  We have been so trained to understand the fearful undercurrent of the N-Word, that we are hesitant to come together and discuss its power in the novel and in our culture.

But then I found an emotional connection for them, and this created a desire within them to be involved in the N-Word: through the very discussions that they wanted to dodge, they discovered the word’s power in the novel.  As I introduced  them to the  movement to sanitize the novel and to  end discomfort when confronted with something that made them nervous, they became willing to open up and discuss their processes.

Isn’t that why we have education?

My students were appalled when they heard of this plan, and then they read Leonard Pitts’ editorial Censoring Huck Finn is Just Wrong.

Empowered by the ideas of the column, we took action,  and students wrote letters to the editor, identifying the vileness of the word, its importance to the message of the novel, and to its adherence to our history. They  had opinions, and they wanted to be heard!

They were excited; they were dismayed that they were empowered with words.  Better yet, their letters were published!  Here’s one student letter:

Dear Editor,

We cannot sugarcoat parts of America’s past.  There is no gray area. There is no middle ground. We should absolutely not censor literature documenting one of the darkest times in American history.

The truth is, writers choose their words with the utmost precision. Twain’s classic novel, Huckleberry Finn, was the first great American novel to express political incorrectness. By censoring out “nigger,” we also censor out the blatant hate expressed toward people of color in that time period, and time to come.

As a student, I understand how one may feel uncomfortable reading this in a classroom setting, but we cannot sugarcoat the past — no matter how unpleasant it may be.

In all honesty, it shocks me when I hear slander in the classroom, yet if we can no longer tolerate the embarrassment, as a society, we forget. When we forget, we repeat.

-Alan Smikenaimages-1

Here’s another:

We must learn from history’s mistakes instead of erasing them.  In all respects, I understand what most people are thinking when they express offense at the N-word used in Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” 

Through studying the book, though, I have also come to the understanding that this word has a much deeper meaning than what it initially means, unlike the more derogatory use of it in many pop culture songs of today, which are not censored.  In other words, the real world outside of this piece of literature is much worse than the words specifically chosen to tell Huck’s story. 

I feel as though it’s my right, as a student, to be exposed to the sort of education that the word in this novel brings; Twain’s outlook on our American history exposed such a deeper and broader meaning and opens up the eyes of many.  Besides, how are we supposed to learn from history and, even more important, our mistakes, if they are erased?

— Hetta Hansen

Here’s a third letter:

The representation of the N-word in Mark Twain’s book, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” has the most important significance. The reason for the N-word is to show people what really happened, and those who get offended by this are denying everything.

Although the book is fiction, the events that took place are similar to the stories of our ancestors: that we, human beings, treated each other differently because of our skin color. Twain wrote this book to correct things, to make us realize that we did something wrong.  And if we were to change that word to slave, it would lose the power.

We need to remember the suffering of people who were defined as property, and it is significant that this book teaches us of that suffering and helps us understand that we should never use words to define people.

— Yarelli Miranda

What I Learned

What became a lesson in the handling of the N-word became a civics lesson, an argumentative essay lesson, and a critical reading lesson.  From their reading and discussion, my students learned to be confident in their opinions and share that confidence with the world.

Alchemy opens a path for us to teach more than the prescribed plan.  Bite the bullet, have the difficult conversations, and watch student minds open and  create change. Teaching is magical if we trust ourselves, our students, and our processes.

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About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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