Why we read this particular kind of filth in school

So, for the past several weeks I’ve been looking deep into my own heart, wondering if it really is a good idea to read a book like Huckleberry Finn in school, wondering if there isn’t some other book that might take us deeper into the feelings of slaves and the conflict between racists and victims of racism. This quest has been all the more serious since a few students have understandably objected to the hyper-racist language and attitudes portrayed in the book. Anyway, I’ve been soul searching (as if high school English teachers had a soul…).

So, Huckleberry Finn was originally banned for reasons that seem petty now. For one thing, none of the characters spoke what was considered the standard English dialect of the day. Also, that Huck was a good-fer-nuthin’, disobedient rascal. The idea back then was that books should be a shining beacon to young people, showing them the best way to act and speak. Obviously, nobody is going to speak more “correctly” after reading this book, and Huck isn’t exactly the quiet, obedient young man every parent dreams of “raising.”

But that was then. Now that we supposedly don’t believe in the power of books to make bad boys be good anymore, and we’ve become more sensitive to racism, the book is generally banned because of the “n-word.” I don’t like the n-word myself. I don’t say it in class, or permit students to say it. When it has come up in short stories in previous classes, I must admit that I have censored it (by not reading it out loud, anyway). So how can I justify reading a book in which every character–“good” or “bad,” “smart” or “dumb,” racist or victim of racism–uses this word as if it were the most natural thing in the world?

I don’t know if Samuel Clemens considered this word to be as viciously hateful as we do now, although I’m pretty certain he understood that it was a word used by the tyrannical majority to gain power over a pluralism of minorities. I actually don’t think it makes much of a difference what Samuel Clemens thought about it because in this book he’s trying (and, I think, succeeding) to present us with an accurate portrayal of what people actually thought and felt. The book only succeeds to the degree that Twain can capture authentic behavior and attitudes. If Twain is accurate in his observations, I guess you can boil the whole controversy down to this: If people said it, it’s worth knowing about. Pretending they didn’t–rewriting history to eliminate the ugly things, like racism–strikes me as the worst evil of them all. It’s as dumb as closing your eyes when a baseball is rocketing straight towards your nose.

Even though it’s dumb to close your eyes, it’s also totally natural. We want to avert our eyes, and pretend that humans aren’t flawed and complicated, that humanity is easily separated into heroes and villains, events sorted into tragedies and comedies. What this book does, in an amazing and subversive way, is make us open our eyes and watch the baseball sail straight into our noses, and then appreciate that crushing, bloody impact over and over again. It makes sense that a lot of people find this unpleasant, but I guess it’s my job in class to keep their eyes open and make them look. Every time the n-word appears in the text, I feel a flinch. The hatred and fear that motivated its use are still with us today. Should we shut our eyes to that?

And one final point: With constant repetition, this word necessarily begins to lose power. At first, I thought this was a bad thing. I kept thinking, what if we get desensitized to the point that we accidentally use this word (or some other racist word) in conversation? What if it doesn’t offend us anymore when modern racists use it? But then I had another thought: What if this word only keeps its power because it is forbidden? We locked it up in the glass case of History where it lurks like a bogeyman, ready to pounce upon any curious, unsuspecting student who stumbles upon it in a book.

This word, like so many of the attitudes portrayed in this book, must be confronted. Pretending it never existed only gives a free pass to the quiet undercurrents of racism still present in our society and lets those racists keep all the power of the word for themselves. We let “them” decide when and how to use the word.

Mark Twain wanted to rile people up, to get them up off the fence with regards to these big, important issues, and he did it: It’s pretty much impossible to stay neutral about this book.

MT

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