Teaching in America: Race, Language and Mark Twain

January 7th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Ok Amber,

I’m gonna wade into this debate…or maybe stick my toe in…or maybe just dive head first into the controversy surrounding the newest edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In this version, the 200+ uses of “nigger” will be replaced with the word “slave.” “Injun” will also be removed.

This has sparked an uproar. Some folks declaring war against this censorship. Others saying it’s the only way the book will be taught in schools. I say….leave the word in.


Because literature should be taught with historical context in mind. Not apologizing for the text (“that’s just what they said, it’s not Mark Twain’s fault”) but discussing why the word is used, the meaning of it, what the text is saying and what the author and audience of the time would think about the text. How do you discuss race within Huckleberry Finn without also discussing the use of a word that today is publicly abhorred? How can Huckleberry be properly taught if we apparently don’t even know how to deal with this ugly word – a word commonly used at the time it was written?

But here’s my but…the key is that the book needs to be taught well. Teachers obviously don’t know how to talk about race and language in the classroom and that is the real problem. It came as no surprise to me that one writer (a professor at GWU, my alma mater ahem) expressed his support of changing the words, with no love for the book, because of his experience reading it in high school: “I suffered through Huckleberry Finn in high school, with the white kids going out of their way to say “Nigger Jim” and the teacher’s tortured explanation that Twain’s “nigger” didn’t really mean nigger, or meant it ironically, or historically, or symbolically. Whatever.”

Clearly, the teacher didn’t know how to teach. It’s a symptom of our desire to make American icons saints, to separate them from the ugliness of their times. Mark Twain wrote “nigger” over 200 times. Probably because that’s exactly what the characters would have said. Probably because Mark Twain himself used the word.

It is a valid, VALID, concern – how will the word impact students of color?

And again, I think that it comes back to how it is taught. And perhaps when it is taught (maybe wait until junior or senior year). This country has a serious problem (okay let’s be honest…white people have a serious problem) with its ability to talk about race and racism. Everyone would rather not talk about it. We would rather just know what words we’re not supposed to say. Why can’t we train teachers to properly address these issues? How can we possibly teach American literature without addressing American history? Even if we were to read books that are without any mention of race or use of racial epithets, isn’t its absence worth a discussion as well? Because race was certainly not absent from the lives of the writers or audiences.

And Melissa Harris-Perry makes an interesting point that this word is already in use and that students already hear it in pop culture. Why not provide them the opportunity to have a thoughtful, structured discussion of its history and use? Not to mention that Melissa points out the dehumanizing effect “slave” has. Are high school teachers going to discuss that?

This is an ugly hurtful word. I think it is essential to consider the maturity of high school students and the experience of students of color in the classroom when thinking about how to teach these subjects. Literature helps us understand history and when taught well, students are able to grapple with subjects and historical contexts that continue to impact our society (and themselves) today. If a teacher isn’t able to teach the text as it is, how well are they really able to teach it at all? Do they even know how to address race and language in literature and history? Will “slave” really make the context of Huckleberry Finn more palatable? Or will students (and teachers) still not understand how to talk about race, but simply know what word they’re not supposed to say?
Full Disclosure: I’ve never read the book (it’s on my list), so in that way I’m handicapped in this debate. But I write from a perspective about how art/literature in general should be taught in high schools, with the assumption that this book is the literary masterpiece that scholars (and my dad) say it is.

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