What the “Huck”?

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A few months ago, I wrote a tirade about the Alabama publisher who took The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and “sanitized” it because school teachers confessed they felt uncomfortable teaching it in their classes due to the  use of the “n-word.”

I ranted and raved about how wrong it is to alter books and how it sets a dangerous precedent.

I never posted it.

I realize that not everyone will agree with me, but I think much (but certainly not all) of the power in Huckleberry Finn is in Twain’s brilliant use of language and how the plot morphs from a story of one, young, rather selfish boy on a journey to a story about a boy and a man, together, against the world.

There is an incredible irony that engaged readers will pick up on that Jim, the slave, referred to as a “nigger” 219 times during the course of the novel, is the most moral, loving, genuine, forgiving, character in the entire book. He is probably one of the greatest father-figures in American Literature. And, if read correctly Huckleberry Finn stands as one of the strongest condemnations of racism in American literature as Huck recognizes Jim’s humanity and says he would rather go to hell than send Jim back into slavery.

I had written much more – about how it is important to discuss the power of the “n-word,” its origins, and its different contexts in different communities; how it is necessary to challenge students about the casual use of the “n-word,” to get them to consider if it is ever okay to use this word and if so, who can say it, when and under what circumstances.

I caught this bit on Huckleberry Finn and the N-word debate on 60 Minutes and about 7 minutes in, I just knew that this report was saying it better than I ever could. If you ever read Twain’s novel or have kids who read it or might read it, it is worth the next 12 minutes of your time. And if you are an educator, I recommend you see it – first, to think about your methods. Because this is a book where one has to be mindful. But this piece of journalism would be great to show in one’s class to get a real discussion on race relations going.

If you were an English teacher, would you use the version with the original text? Or would you choose the new version where the “n-word” is replaced by the word “slave”? Or would you avoid the discussion on race altogether?

39 responses to “What the “Huck”?

  1. My comment is keep the original. It reflects what was happening at that time. Never forget the past……..learn from it.

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  2. I’d keep the original. I think the discussions that kids need to be having these days is about how words change meanings throughout time and about how to appropriately talk to others.

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  3. Keep the original. Quit messing around with the good stuff.

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  4. This is re-writing history. Revisionist history only serves the winners. This makes it look like whites have won the racism war and are now attempting to white-wash (pun intended on so many levels…got a fence?) and erase past behavior. The idea of primary sources is important. I often read original texts from the 18th century because they are an uninterpreted view of exactly what was going on.

    Also, in my dealings with students of multiple races on a daily basis I can report that the N word is alive and in common speech…albeit only fashionable for a specific contingent of our population to use. In my opinion the whole N word debate is just another way to perpetuate conflict and provide yet another excuse not to move on to more productive dialog.

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    • I agree with this insightful evaluation except on one point : In my experience it is not the white educational community that is the “cleanser”. It is the elements of the ACLU and NAACP and other entities that represent minorities.

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      • Well, did you see this report? It is a white man’s company that decided to do something in response to the complaint that teachers are uncomfortable teaching this material.

        So, do we stop teaching the material? Use the sanitized version? Or stop talking about race?

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  5. I taught in schools that were 90% African American for 28 years and 90% Haitian for the last six. Caribbean blacks are unable to internalize the African American experience because social castes are identified by economic stature not racial stature. First of all, the classics are largely ignored despite curriculum requirements because today’s English grads seem to have studied and have been exposed to primarily gender and minority authored material and literature along those themes. Couldn’t teach it anyway.

    In AP class discussions, it would be productive. We were too busy with distractions and behavior problems in this district to have discussions in regular or low level because any attempt triggered off task behaviors. You don’t get down to the considerations such as these when your 11th graders are 3 to 5 years below reading grade level. The objectors can’t seem to realize the the use of the word was part of Twain’s overall condemnation of the Antebellum South.

    Any discussion with objectors is a waste of time. They are so rabid in their hatred of American society for slavery you can’t discuss it rationally. If I was a black person I would be somewhat enraged over slavery too. That rage is justified but all people need to understand this as a condition of our past. The “we are victims” amen corner is too busy screaming about how George Washington spent his time in the slave quarters fathering children.

    First of all he was a Mason and too honorable a man to engage in such activity. Second, Washington survived small pox at 10 years old and was sterile. Everyone needs to get their facts straight.

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    • So you are saying, the original material might be appropriate in an AP class.

      So what about everyone else? They just don’t get to read about Huck Finn? Seems to me a good English teacher could easily get students to understand the use of language (or over-use of a particular word) as intentional and, possibly, ironic. No?

      Wasn’t it Jefferson who kept slaves and fathered children to slave women?

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      • Yes it would not be unreasonable to suggest that about Jefferson but to what degree I do not know. But his personal writings reveal that he truly loved Sally Hemmings. What I am saying is that AP level was mature enough to handle controversial material and to have round table discussions. With my lower level students I found it almost impossible to discuss ANYTHING because of discipline problems and all too frequent off task behavior, not the nature of the topic. If the school is overwhelmingly Caribbean Black (as is my alma mater, North Miami SHS)the conversation is irrelevant because they do not relate in any way to the African American experience. Miami is quite different. The district is 90% minority!!! (over punctuated, I know. I am reading the book)So the n-word has no racial offensiveness because it is a term Blacks and Hispanics use to refer to themselves. In my high school of 2,800 I don’t think there were 10 white kids. I always tried, without success, to get them to understand how they were disrespectful to themselves by using the word. Rap music has transformed the n-word from being racially offensive to common teen normal ghetto talk. That is unique to inner city minority schools. I agree censorship cannot be promoted under any circumstances, neither can revisionism. Both compromise historical integrity. Another factor that flavors the conversation is that at least a quarter of the school population in Miami is of mixed race as are my grandkids. So the conversation is irrelevant to that group too. The kids are too busy to talk about race. This is because they are too busy talking about the Miami Heat, the state test(FCAT), clothing , music and boyfriends and girlfriends to care about what is a non issue. ISN’T THAT WONDERFUL ?

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  6. Heather Thompson

    Were I an English teacher I would absolutely keep the content in its original form.

    One of the things that disturbed me the very most in this news piece was the representative for the sanitized version’s publisher. His comment that children/students should not have to feel pain. I disagree. Not that we should all run out and start CAUSING children pain to help them learn.

    I have found that my best learning experiences came from things that made me feel something. Those feelings could be sadness, anger, joy and even fear. A little discomfort can go a long way toward helping students understand how things were and how that impacts the way things are.

    Don’t edit Mark Twain!!!

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    • I agree. Sometimes the best learning is when we are off balance a little bit. A little uncomfortable. Sometimes folks even have to agree to disagree.

      But to avoid the discourse seems really messed up.

      And, can I add, changing original text seems to set really dangerous precedent.

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  7. I feel we must not alter the text. This is happening in the text books all over the world. Even in our grade 9 English literature book such words in the fiction are either avoided or changed.
    Let the words not be altered but we could explain to the children the situation/outlook that existed in those days and why such words were used. Afterall we cannot change the reality or the history.

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  8. Editing history is wrong. Too much PC-ness is ruining our society.

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  9. Mark Twain was a brilliant man who was an artist with the written word. I believe that Mr Twain used this specific word to portray the accepted ignorance of the time. To change the book to reflect a softer version would be undermining an entire people’s plight. I also believe that the common day usage of the word by African Americans is doing the exact same thing. If they change this book then eventually instead of “slave” it may read “under paid”. Yes, it is a slippery slope when we tread on history.

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    • Do you mean the casual use of the N-word today is not appropriate? That is addressed in the video as well. I, personally, don’t like the idea of censoring any word. At all. That said, I don’t like the word but I understand why students use it with each other. It is a word they have embraced as their own. Folks from the outside shouldn’t say it.

      Like Jewish people can tease each other about being cheapskates or folks of Irish descent can joke about drinking to excess — but someone from outside the ethnic group better not go there.

      There are stereotypes, pejorative words used against race or religion or ethnic group. And these are the stereotypes that insiders can embrace (or reject) – if we are part of the group. But outsiders better tread lightly.

      I think it is weird when Eminem applies the N-word to himself. I often think, that is not his word.

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  10. I agree with the others. It’s important for all, even our children, to understand the texts, and the invariable contexts, of our history- in literature, science, et al. If we choose to edit it, or water it down, we’re not doing a service to our children. Kids need to understand, to feel the dirty, uncomfortable, even “wrong” aspects of the world, of our society and cultures. Otherwise, how are they to make rational, logical, objective evaluations and assessments of the evidence?

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    • So what’s the deal-i-o? Do you think that teachers feel less able to discuss these texts than in the past? Or is there not enough time to devote to these nuances because of all the standardized testing that kids have to prepare for? Why, suddenly, can’t we don’t about Huck’s language, especially when we hear the word so much on the day to day? Why, suddenly, are people so uncomfortable?

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  11. I think Mark Twain would get a big kick out of the fuss his book is making today…”All you need is ignorance and confidence and the success is sure.”

    Wendy

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  12. I absolutely HATE when people alter a text. My history background is showing – but in order to better understand a time period you need to look at the literature of that time period. Not to mention pieces like this are such a stark contrast to the way the language is used today it’s a huge talking point for a class.

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  13. The recent PBS documentary on Twain was excellent and really cements what you are saying–Twain was making a statement on the horrid treatment of blacks well after the Civil War. This would be a great addition to a classroom discussion of the author and racism.

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  14. I have left a comment on fb. I am all for keeping to the original, but of course there needs to be a discussion in the classroom about the historical context. How things have changed, why they changed, what caused the changes. Can political correctness ever be wrong?

    For now I will leave you with a poem by Stevie Smith

    Was it not curious of Saint Augustin,
    Saint Augustin, Saint Augustin,
    When he saw the beautiful British children
    To say such a curious thing?

    He said he must send the gospel, the gospel,
    At once to them over the waves
    He never said he thought it was wicked
    To steal them away for slaves.

    To steal the children away
    To buy and have slavery all
    Oh no, oh no, it was not a thing
    That caused him any appal.

    Was it not curious of Gregory
    Rather more than of Saint Augustin?
    It was not curious so much
    As it was wicked of them.

    *When Gregory saw young blonde slaves in the market place in Rome in the sixth century he asked where they were from and was told they were Angles. “they are not Angles, they are Angels” he said.

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  15. Good post Renee. I will check out that report for sure. I saw an earlier comment about what if students are uncomfortable with certain language. My simple answer is the same whether the topic is the n-word, Holocaust, or Crusades. I, and I think all of us, can’t afford to put some people’s feelings over truth. Truth is everything. It’s my standard. We have to understand a lot of terrible things in order to learn and grow. Someone here and there may hate me for talking about things that make them uncomfortable. I’m okay with that. What I wouldn’t be okay with is knowing I had a responsibility to teach and wasn’t truthful to my best ability.

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    • I agree, but I do think one has to be sensitive to the students who might be closer to the experience. I am thinking about the years where I taught at a school where there was one black student in each section and I taught Huck. I always tried to check in and see how these students were doing, and they always said they were “okay with it,” but it couldn’t have been comfortable for any of them.

      Another year, I had to sit with my department chair and an attorney as two parents of a student said it was “criminal” for a white woman to try to teach the book. I was scared for my job that afternoon. I knew I was covering the material with tremendous sensitivity – but the department chair ultimately suggested the student read a different book, which he did. It made me sad that he never read Huck.

      Students can be “uncomfortable” as long as the teacher is in control of the material and comes back to center. If the teacher doesn’t feel comfortable with something, you know his/her students will smell that fear. I wouldn’t want an educator to try to deliver the right message to unreceptive students, as Carl was intimating. That would be really uncomfortable for everyone I would imagine.

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  16. I actually had a discussion about this very topic in my composition class. We were talking about the supposed immutability of written works, and I mentioned this “sanitization” of Twain. My point was twofold: 1) to defend the artistic integrity of Twain’s work, and 2) to use the forbidden word in an effort to show it has no power but what we give it. I’m Caucasian, and had 3 African-American students in class that day (along with mulatto, Afghani, and Filipino students). There were a lot of shocked looks when I blithely said “There’s a publisher who wants to remove ‘n—-r’ from Huck Finn.” The only acknowledgement of race I made as to make sure everyone knew I was not using the word in any hurtful way (whcih I did at least three times in our 50-minute class), and everyone seemed OK with it, though no one else was willing to say the word. And the African-American students were the most outraged that the publisher would change it to “slave,” an anachronism that really doesn’t carry anything near the cultural value of the original term. It was a great discussion, because we were all on the same page — and I can’t imagine the original couldn’t be handled with some sensitivity and awareness, of the students and of the time of composition.

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    • How do you know your African-American students were most outraged? What did they say specifically in defense of keeping the text. Sounds like a great discussion on a million levels!😉

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      • At least two of them were visibly shocked — body language spoke volumes. And they all spoke out against the change, one of them pointing out the significantly different connotations. It was one of the best discussions I’ve managed with this otherwise fairly passive group.

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  17. I am forwarding this post to a colleague of mine with whom I had this very discussion last Sunday.

    And yes, we are 100% in your court. Loved what you said about Jim – and a careful reading of his character.

    This book remains one of my favorites. Ahead of its time. A voice for all time.

    Sing it, sister!

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  18. As an English teacher who has taught the novel for years, I would NOT teach the altered version. As anyone who has actually read the novel knows, the most substantial character in the novel is Jim. We do our students a disservice if we change the original version and “whitewash” Twain’s words.

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  19. I think the altered version is eeeeeeeevil and would never use it in my classes. I understand that it would be difficult, possibly more for me than it would be for my students. It is so ingrained in me that the n-word is bad that I can’t even type it (though I do recognizes that it borders on absurd that I won’t use a word in the midst of its defense!)

    Twain was brilliant, just brilliant, so the thought of messing with is work is the first thing that gets my hackles up. But for the most part, I feel sanitizing the language is just pandering to people who just want their guilt assuaged for our country’s past sins. It makes _them_ feel better, but in doing so, they’re lying; they’re ignoring the truth of that past because it’s uncomfortable. And really, it’s _not_all_about_them_ so why do we all suddenly have to live in Fantasyland just to suit their tastes?

    (I’ve fallen into the Grand Council of They stylistic error😉 )

    Anyway, I promise I’m not just shilling my blog here, but I did write a post on modern uses of pejorative terms called “Words We Can’t Say, Except When We Can” (if you want to take a gander!)

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  20. Tonight I attended an event where students told the community about their experience in the Big Picture South Burlington program. (The program is awesome but not really the point of this comment).

    I had the opportunity to see one of the senior exhibitions where students describe what projects they did and share what they learned during the year. The student I saw decided to share her essay for the “This I Believe” exercise, which was about racism.

    During a truly amazing display of courage and knowledge well beyond here years, this black student in the very very white world of Burlington, VT said something that made me think of this blog and discussion. She wrote (and I paraphrase) “The n-word should not just bother me but everyone” while discussing how everyone always turned towards her when anything related to black history was shown in class.

    This, for me, was where I thought, yes it should bother us all and teachers need to have the opportunity to address why it should bother us and how the word has been used. We cannot expect our students to change their own feelings about race if we as adults refuse to address the issues directly and hide behind the fear of offending someone instead. Yes, having the discussion will make students of color and white students uncomfortable but it also means there is a chance for some truly meaningful discussion and learning to occur.

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