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.

Where Racial and Religious Discrimination Meet

August 27th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

So Amber,

Twenty days later and I gotta come back to this mosque topic. I’m heated again. The latest is this video:

I wanted to tear some heads off when I saw this. Scream. Cry. The works. It is disgustingly ugly. 

And racial.

They may be chanting “No Mosque here” but it is so much more than fear of a religion. It demonstrates that the perceptions of Islam in America (and the Western world) are racialized. This man, trying to get through a crowd, is chanted at, verbally abused and dehumanized because he is a man of color and he wore a “weird” hat. The combination of the two signaled to the crowd that he was Muslim. Because he was (perceived to be) Muslim, he must be their opponent.

I read a comment that said (not a direct quote) “Stop saying its racist stupid. It’s a religion.” And this is what I want to talk about. Why this video is racist.

I’ve made comments to people before about how racist the language against Islam is, and they often don’t understand me. They understand that the language isn’t good, but they don’t see race involved. The color of someone’s skin is never verbalized, so how is it racist? It’s about religion and culture.

But here it is to see. A sea of white faces angrily following a black man and chanting. As he puts it, “All ya’ll dumb motherfuckers don’t even know my opinion on shit.”

But they think they do. Because of how he appears. Because they see Islam as a religion that is not white. Because he is a black man wearing certain clothing. Because they see him as other. As foreign. As not American (you know, the “real” America).

What is “other” to them? Islam is. Blackness is. In the context of a protest against Islam (or a Mosque at Ground Zero…whichever you want to say), race becomes a stand-in for religion.

It doesn’t matter that he says, “I’m not even Muslim.”

Why is this video racist? Why are the conversations European countries have about ridding their countries of the influence of Islam racist? Why are tv shows, movies, articles about terrorism so often racist? Because race and religion cross each other is so many contexts. Because one is used to characterize the other. Nothing is scarier than a black Muslim man.

I can barely write this without wanting to rip something to shreds. This entire issue makes me so upset: Real people are hurt by this bullshit. Politicians can bow to polls like it doesn’t matter, but real people are hurt. This man does not walk away from it unscathed. Neither do those who watch it and feel the heat and anger directed towards them.

This is when I really hate the world.

I wanted this post to be more thoughtful, more intellectual, but right now, it can only come out as emotional. It’s just too deep.

It’s History, Stupid: The Arizona Ethnic Studies Ban

May 17th, 2010 § 2 comments § permalink

Ok Amber,

So hope gets me moving, but so does anger. And anger has me writing again. Cuz I am pissed.

I’ve been following this Arizona Ethnic Studies ban, from its introduction as a bill to its now becoming law (Arizona, you got serious issues). And I found this video between Arizona’s State School Superintendent Tom Horne, Anderson Cooper and Michael Eric Dyson.

I may end up rehashing a lot of what Dyson says, but I’ll push ahead anyway. So Tom Horne throws a lot out there in his attempt to justify this ban: don’t divide kids by race; don’t be “race-obsessed;” Martin Luther King Jr has inspired us; teach kids that this is a land of opportunity. My favorite is calling it “ethnic chauvinism.”

Horne’s version of America is a country without oppression (despite Arizona’s racial profiling), a land of perfect opportunity and perfect access (despite the overwhelming inequalities in education, resources and representation), and a place with one narrative, the “American dream.”

I am still sometimes amazed at the level of ignorance in these types of arguments. To study American history is to study oppression. Its foundation began with genocide; its economy was built on slavery; its fears were prioritized at its citizens’ expense (I’m thinking McCarthy and Japanese internment camps). So, yeah, oppression is a “downer.” History is a “downer.” But it already profoundly affects the lives of students. Classes give students the tools to understand and talk about it. Of course, it matters how we talk about this oppression (there can be a damaging strain), but reality is not a fairy tale so we shouldn’t try to make it seem so. Equally important to learning about oppression is learning about the struggle against oppression. And frankly, it’s Mr. Horne’s privilege as a white male that enables him to avoid these “downers” anyway.

Besides, studying Latino, African American, Asian American history does not just mean studying it in relation to white people. It’s deeper and richer than that.

Finally, white students benefit from these classes too. They have a hell of a lot to learn from them. Why see these classes as divisive? Whites learn a lot about themselves when they shut up and listen. (This could also be a whole other post…white students and ethnic studies. Complicated.)

The history of the United States has been to exclude; these classes attempt to correct that. This mask of “color-blindness” is just another way to use power and resist change. One memorized line from MLK does not indicate understanding of a struggle. Instead, denying the full narrative of American history and the place for focused study is to participate in the continuation of oppression. So, Mr. Horne, you’re the best example for why we need these classes.

Communal Living: Speaking Truth to Power

April 27th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink


I’ve been reading a lot of bell hooks lately. It was actually inspired by your post on embracing the self and others. A lot of what you said reminded me of hooks’ writings on multiple topics, especially ending racism through building community. She has a piece in one of her books, appropriately titled Killing Rage: Ending Racism, that focuses on building a “beloved community—where loving ties of care and knowing bind us together in our differences.” Here are few quotations that I really like:

“…beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.”

“To form beloved community we do not surrender ties to precious origins. We deepen those bondings by connecting them with an anti-racist struggle which is at heart always a movement to disrupt that clinging to cultural legacies that demands investment in notions of racial purity, authenticity, nationalist fundamentalism. The notion that differences of skin color, class background, and cultural heritage must be erased for justice and equality to prevail is a brand of popular false consciousness that helps keep racist thinking and action intact.”

“In a beloved community solidarity and trust are grounded in profound commitment to a shared vision…where borders can be crossed and cultural hybridity celebrated.”

With your most recent post on the effect of S.B. 1070 on the lives of so many individuals in Arizona, imagining a beloved community does seems like wishful thinking. *Sigh.* But it is in times likes these that we need visionaries, like hooks, to remind us to keep fighting AND that there is something worth fighting for. We must continue to “Speak Truth to Power.”

Those videos both angered and inspired me. S.B. 1070 is institutional racism at its best. (If you didn’t believe in it before, they just signed it into law, snitches…again. *blank stare*) Clearly so many in this country are terrified of change and are trying their darndest to hold on to their entitlement and institutional power in the forms of racial, social, cultural, sexual, economic, (and the list goes on) privilege. It is sickening and I am…tired. SMDH.

But these videos and the passion and determination of these individuals who are fighting for things that others in this country take for granted everyday, have given me so much hope. A 21st Century Civil Rights Movement sounds damn good to me. Maybe this time we’ll get it right.

Arizona’s New Law: Awakening of the 21st Century Civil Rights Movement?

April 26th, 2010 § 2 comments § permalink


Have you been following this new Arizona law? It’s ridiculous. And makes me angry. Below are some videos I thought you and our readers might be interested in….comment ya’ll!

Protests against SB 1070

Dr. Warren H. Stewart Speaks at Phoenix’s First Institutional Baptist Church

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the racism category at That's So Deep.