Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reading Huck Finn

I’ve been reading some of the discussions on the sanitized version of Huckleberry Finn due out in February, where 'nigger' has been replaced by 'slave' and 'injun' by 'Indian.'

I think the decision to sanitize, if that’s what it is, is wrong-headed in a number of ways. First off, 'nigger' and 'slave' are not synonymous. 'Slave' is an objective term. 'Nigger' is subjective. It’s a word so hot it practically carries the history of slavery, segregation and white supremacist bigotry all by itself in six letters. When Huck used it, he reflected the beliefs of the white power class of his time that blacks were lesser beings, and he was struggling with the cognitive dissonance. That struggle of conscience is at the very heart of the book. To take out a word essential to demonstrating and understanding Huck’s moral growth, is to cut the heart out of the book and subvert the whole purpose of literature – to broaden one’s experience and excite one’s imagination. And it’s bad enough that we obscure the past in every day life. To do this in an allegedly educational setting is shameful.

I’m not necessarily opposed to updating the language of great works of literature. Even sacred texts get modified. “Suffer the little children to come unto me…” is 17th Century English. Jesus speaking in 21st Century English would have said, “Let the little children come to me…” But the loss of the elegant sound of Elizabethan English is offset by better understanding, or so say the advocates of modern Bible translations. 'Let' is the modern word for 'suffer.'

But 'slave' is not the modern word for 'nigger.' The meaning of the text has been altered, and not for improved understanding, but to sell more books. The argument being made for the change is that teachers and school administrators will not use the book without the changes. We are urged to compromise so that more kids will know this wonderful book. And, of course, the sound of the coins in the coffers is a pleasant one.

Furthermore, the motivation behind the word alteration is also wrong, it seems to me. Somehow, changing 'nigger' to 'slave' is supposed to make the book more kid-friendly. But it’s not a kid’s book. It’s serious literature, and it’s filled with some unpleasant reality. If you think your kids are not ready for it, there are plenty of other books they can read instead. They can go on using nigger and bitch and fag on the playground, while harmony and innocence is the rule in the classroom. Thinking you’ve made this book into kiddie lit is really dumb.

As for whether kids are ready to read adult literature, somebody at The Christian Science Monitor thought to ask, "What would Mark Twain himself think of all this?" As you take note of his answer, note also how the answer will be understood one way if you take it literally, as many Americans these days seem to take most things, and another way if you are familiar with Mark Twain's talent for sarcasm.

What a tragedy that one would throw away an opportunity to educate. To point out that Huck Finn is a boy without much schooling who nonetheless has the wherewithal to spot the foolish cruelty of the world around him. That 'Nigger Jim' is a figure kids and adults alike have come to understand over time as heroic. An American hero. And a black man. How on earth does one justify closing one’s eyes to American history and culture at the very moment one makes the decision to teach Huck Finn?

The real issue is not the sanitizing/censorship, but the readiness of those we call to be educators. The real problem is not the text of Huck Finn, but the real or assumed inability of teachers to fasten their safety belts for the bumpy ride. This is it, kids. This is your country a century and a half ago. It’s about a white boy who has been taught to believe it’s his duty to return a slave to his owners, but whose gut tells him there’s something wrong with that. He’s not part of our world; he’s from another time. We have a hundred fifty years of experience on him, a hundred fifty more years in which to reflect on the evils of slavery, segregation and racism. Our experience tells us to avoid the n-word because it’s a white supremacist’s word. He had to work around the knowledge we now take for granted. Look closely at this story. What would you have done? Would you have had the courage to stick by Jim, the wisdom to see the folly of the world around you?

Of course there will be problems with immature kids and what they will do when the word 'nigger' is brought out in the open, rather than suppressed. You can be sure kids are familiar with hate speech. They know they can hurt a woman by calling her a bitch, a gay man by calling him a fag. There are times when people in charge have to focus on behavior and ignore the motivation. Like when kids are racing through the halls to get to class on time. And there are times when getting at motivation is what it's all about. In a class in American Literature, for example.

It’s not just that teachers lack courage and skill. It’s also, in many cases, that they lack institutional support to tackle challenges like this one. I know that many times teachers come home at the end of the day and say things like, “Today was a good day; nobody died.” But that’s not where the bar should be.

To teachers who insist the challenge is overwhelming, I’d like to say this. I know it’s hard to get things right. Give students materials that are too easy for them and you bore them and lose them. Give students materials that are too challenging and you frustrate them and lose them. You’ve got to do all you can to get it right.

But you’re not always going to get it right. You’re going to err in one direction or the other at times. At some point in the discussion of hate speech that would likely come out of a treatment of Huck Finn in class the students will learn that you took the word out because you thought they couldn’t handle it, or you left it in because you thought they could. Whatever you do, whether you overestimate them or underestimate them, they will find out, eventually. What would you rather say about your failure to get it right? That they didn’t rise to your expectations? Or that they didn’t sink to your expectations?


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