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The Debate About 'Huck Finn' and the N-word

Comment

Dear Larry: I want you to comment on the controversy about Mark Twain's book "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." There is an effort to change some of the language in the book to make it more palatable to 21st-century readers, given today's sensitivity to the N-word.

I am a 32-year-old white father of a girl in grammar school. I have taught her never to use the N-word in any conversation, regardless of the reason. I also told her not to use the word even if the teachers say it is all right. The use of Mark Twain's book makes me uneasy because of the many times that word is used.

But I am also uneasy with tampering with books. I can see how changing books to make them fit particular points of view is dangerous. Depending upon who happens to be in charge, it would be possible to change books from history to give any meaning the ruling power would want them to have. Once you start changing books, there is no telling where it can and will lead.

I am at a loss as to how I feel about this subject because I see both sides. I agree that the N-word should be shielded from impressionable minds, and I see the danger in changing books.

I would appreciate some thinking to help me grapple with this conundrum. — Beaver

Dear Beaver: "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," written by Mark Twain in the 1880s, is a story that uses the N-word 219 times. It is a children's classic, but as you say, it is becoming increasingly difficult to use while remaining politically sensitive. The rewriters are trying to keep it a children's classic in today's environment to be kind to all ethnicities.

I believe there is more to this than simply updating a story.

It is also an effort to "whitewash" the author. There is no mistaking that Mark Twain was a rebel for his time. He challenged the status quo of his day. He was considered a "rebel with a cause."

This same rebel, who championed the black man, is now considered a racist by many. By today's standard, no one but a racist could use the N-word that many times. This mix of emotions makes Mark Twain lovers very unhappy.

There are many papers, essays and dissertations on whether Mark Twain was a racist. It didn't start recently; even Mark Twain responded to this charge. He said: "I am quite sure that ... I have no race prejudices (or) creed prejudices. ... All that I care to know is that a man is a human being."

In my opinion, Mark Twain was a complex and evolving person, like all of us. He was more enlightened than his contemporaries but pales to today's standards. It is wrong to change his writings, even for little minds and readers.

I further believe that children should not read his books until they are old enough to understand why people can be good on one hand and not so good on the other. Children must be old enough to know and understand how we can have heroes who have traits and behaviors that by today's standards are not acceptable.

For example, Woodrow Wilson championed the League of Nations and equality around the world yet didn't want blacks and whites together. He segregated Washington, D.C. He was wrong on one hand but did good things with the other.

It takes an understanding mind to understand this. Too many people have an all-or-nothing attitude about racial issues. We must allow for an abundance of gray to color our thoughts.

To find out more about Larry G. Meeks and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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Comments

13 Comments | Post Comment
Ooh, I wonder how they're going to handle "Native American Joe!" Or is that "Indigenous Person" Joe? I can't keep up!
Comment: #1
Posted by: VAdame
Fri Jan 7, 2011 9:29 PM
I'm not even that convinced that Wilson was such a great president, frankly. He ignored the wishes of the American people and got the US in the middle of Word War I, and got the ball rolling on a lot of modern day left-wing thought. Like the League of Nations, for instance. The League was powerless to do anything about the rise of Axis aggression in Europe and Asia - it condemned the Japanese after their invasion of China, after which the Japanese delegation simply got up and walked out.

It suddenly dawned on the rest of the diplomats that there was absolutely nothing they could do in response to this defiance. It was so powerless that the United States never even bothered to join, despite championing its cause. (The League was the forerunner to today's dysfunctional, worthless United Nations.) Wilson was a racist, as Larry states...and a far inferior president to his successors Hoover and Coolidge.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Matt
Fri Jan 7, 2011 11:57 PM
Larry is spot-on about Twain's books. Keep them away from kids until they've reached a certain age, but don't censor the books. If the students are reading passages from the books aloud in class (I had to do this, even in high school) it's perfectly fine for the teacher to simply say, "Don't read that word out loud if you encounter it in the text." It serves no purpose to annoy people who find it offensive - and what reasonable individual wouldn't? Read it silently and consider the book a product of the times during which it was written.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Matt
Sat Jan 8, 2011 12:35 AM
As a recen library science graduate, I can tell you many in librarianship greatly disapprove of this recent effort at censorship. I treat Huckleberry Finn as a book written true to it's time in history; a time in which a horrible injustice occurred and I hope it will never occur, again. Frankly, it's my opinion that whitewashing it does more harm than good. I think it gives the impression that the people involved in these situations in history are either all good or all bad, which is rarely the case.

I agree with Matt that it is best to present literature to children that is age-appropriate or when they are mature enough to understand the complexities of the information presented.

In any case, I am not fond of censorship.
Comment: #4
Posted by: LibraryKat
Sat Jan 8, 2011 8:22 AM
Oops, that was supposed to be "recent" library graduate.
Comment: #5
Posted by: LibraryKat
Sat Jan 8, 2011 8:24 AM
I am African American. Mr. Meeks and I are at odds on several issues, but I thought this was a thoughtful and practical approach to teaching about Mark Twain and his books. Thanks!
Comment: #6
Posted by: Carla
Sat Jan 8, 2011 9:58 AM
Matt,

What you said about age-appropriateness and avoiding censorship is spot on. School librarians are supposed to know the difference (that is, recognizing even unintended censorship) but unfortunately meet resistance by some well-intentioned (although some are just plain ignorant, in my opinion) individuals and groups. It is more troubling when administrators fall prey to hysteria and pull materials without due process of re-consideration of the item.

If anyone is interested in learning more about library users' rights, please visit the American Library Association's Web site, www.ala.org, and look up the Library Bill of Rights and the Office of Intellectual Freedom.
Comment: #7
Posted by: LibraryKat
Sat Jan 8, 2011 10:49 AM
First of all, the word isn't used by the NARRATOR -- it's used by the CHARACTERS, who are racists. The whole point of the book is about the battle between Huck's heart and his (RACIST) background. If you tone down the racists, you tone down that point.

Second, trying to pretend to children that racism didn't/doesn't exist is counterproductive and insulting to their intelligence. Nobody can live on a diet of straight Disney pablum!

I would never characterize this book as a "children's classic". It has way more depth than that. Children may read it -- I read it myself as a child -- but it's a challenging book on all sorts of levels. Reading it is a good thing for children -- it stretches their minds and gives you lots of stuff to talk about with them. For heaven's sakes, talk about it with them! Don't just hide from the difficult conversations.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Sheila
Sat Jan 8, 2011 12:54 PM
I would never call a black co-worker "the colored guy" but at one time that WAS the term to use in polite society (and BLACK was insulting). The NAACP thought so too. At the time, the use of the N-word was not taken with the same meaning if I were to use it today to describe a co-worker. N-word, negro, colored all MEAN dark-skinned since the root of N-word IS black. The context matters.
Comment: #9
Posted by: Dave
Sat Jan 8, 2011 1:43 PM
I'm a Jew and I have no problem with "The Merchant of Venice" or "The Canterbury Tales." I'm confident that no American will think that all Jews are evil based on those books alone. But when the Bernie Madoff scandal broke, we were afraid we'd become targets of angry investors.

If you want to ban a racist book, start with BABAR THE ELEPHANT. The book is pro-colonialist, and teaches klids that only "finely dressed people" can get respect. The title character leaves his natural habitat, goes to a city, turns himself into a refined European gentleman, then goes back to the jungle and civilizes all the animals, then they make him their king just because he wears "fine clothing."

What kind of lesson does that teach the kids? Do you want them to think that only the best-dressed people are good? Do you want them to think that you can't be accepted the way you are?

Leave Tom Sawyer alone. Instead of sanitizing it, leave it as it is, and don't assign it to kids until they're older. There are also some junior versions of it, designed for 1st graders with easier language and fewer words in general.
Comment: #10
Posted by: Ben
Sat Jan 8, 2011 5:55 PM
I don't necessarily have a problem with a "sanitized" version of Huck Finn as long as the original is still available. Just like the n-word may be edited out of movies or music, it can be edited out of a book, allowing the individual or parent to decide if they want to be exposed to it. Huck Finn can be enjoyable for younger readers through junior versions, as Ben points out, with other elements and layers added as the reader gets old enough and mature enough to understand them. I've wondered if Huck Finn should be required reading at the high school level for years, because those extra layers are what takes it from an adventurous slice of life story to social commentary requiring critical thinking, where high school students should be at. I suppose it depends on the students and the context-advanced lit classes at a racially stable school would be a more appropriate place to teach Huck Finn than a basic lit class, where less time is spent on difficult concepts, at a school with racial tension. Either way, by the high school level, students don't benefit from stories without layers, so either teach Huck Finn as it with all the implications that come with it, use piece of literature that addresses race issues with less inflammatory language, such as The Blacker the Berry or A Raisin in the Sun, or go another direction and discuss other issues instead.
Comment: #11
Posted by: Nichole
Sun Jan 9, 2011 10:06 AM
Wow, finally a topic here on which we all seem to be able to get along! I am pleasantly surprised that with one exception, everyone was basically on the same page: Mark Twain's writing should stand as is, and the key is to ensure that his books are being read by students who of an age to learn, understand and discuss the myriad complexities of the stories they tell (of which racism is a major part, but surely not the only part). I believe I was in high school when Mark Twain was on the curriculum at my school, and that seems entirely appropriate to me.

@Nichole -- you were the lone voice that said you were OK with a "sanitized" version as long as the original is still available. Allow me to tell you why that really is not OK. One of the most important points of having a student read these books is to engage that student in a healthy, open, meaningful discussion of racism, its history here in the U.S., the progress that's been made, and the progress that still needs to be made. Mark Twain's use of the "n word" also allows for a good discussion of the power of words, how words and their connotations can change, and why it is, therefore, so important to choose words wisely. None of these important learning moments can take place if we "sanitize" these books.
Moreover, there are many other books out there -- the Count of Monte Christo comes to mind as an example -- that, like Huck Finn, have numerous passages, twists and turns that make them entirely inappropriate for children, and yet for some reason, because of the "high adventure" of the main plot, we insist on redacting, abridging and mangling the original so they can be kid-appropriate. I will never understand why we do this. There are enough "high adventure" books that are already appropriate for kids, so let's leave the ones that require more thought, more understanding, more experience to older students and adults.
But I do also want to note that once we read past the first line of your post, it is clear that you really do get all of this. I think that first line of your post was an attempt to try to understand the other side of this debate, and it is always laudable to try to understand where others are coming from and try to find common ground. It's just that in this case, that common ground is a slippery slope!
Comment: #12
Posted by: Lisa
Thu Jan 13, 2011 3:04 PM
Lisa, I see your point, and I would much prefer to read, teach, and be taught the original version that allowed for unsculpted thought about the racial context of the time and place. However, some people would rather read the story with a little gloss on it and are so distracted by the one word that they can't enjoy any of the elements of the story, including those that have nothing to do with race. Changing the word doesn't remove all racial context. Literature is dynamic, long after the author is dead, and that nature of a book as a living entity is what separates classics from popular books that don't stand the test of time. If there was a market for an edition of "Twilight" that never used the word vampire (not implying that “Twilight” is a potential classic), that version would exist. I would argue that if one were interested in discussion on the social context of vampirism, they would still be able to do so without the word ever coming up. You'll also notice that I said if the context was inappropriate for teaching Huck Finn as it is, it should not be taught at all. The n-word is no less historically significant in a Snoop Doggy Dog song than it is in Huck Finn, we just look at it differently. You can't escape issues of race, and making it possible to ignore one word in some editions of one piece of text isn't going to shield every American child from the realities of historical racism. While removing part of the context damages one area of the intent, it still allows readers of that version to consider new ideas about race and other concepts, because Huck Finn is about more than just race. A sanitized version of Huck Finn doesn't make it impossible to think about historical views on race. Far from it. In my book (no pun intended), if that's what you want to read, to each his own, though I do agree 100% that if that version was used as a teaching tool instead of an optional adjustment for the casual reader, it would be a waste and a disappointment, and an abuse of the availability of such an edition.
Whew, my brain feels like it got a nice workout! See, the possibility of discussions like this are why I continue to pop in occasionally on Larry Meeks, even though I disagree with pretty much everything he says. Thanks, Lisa et al!
Comment: #13
Posted by: Nichole
Fri Jan 14, 2011 5:28 PM
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