12 January 2011

Huckleberry Fi

When I first heard about it, I thought maybe it was an Oulipian exercise: remove all the n-words from Huckleberry Finn.

But no, apparently the new edition only removes THE n-word. And replaces it with the word "slave".

Thus, the book will be more palatable to school boards, curriculum committees, parents, and students. They'll all be able to look past those 200+ uses of that word and pay more attention to the things that really matter in the book, because it's really a wonderful book ... except for that that word.

I really liked what novelist and teacher Nicole Peeler had to say on the subject:
...I would argue that Gribben, in choosing “slave,” does what so much of our media and our popular culture do every day: We act like racism is our history rather than our present. It’s like we’re trying to convince ourselves, as a nation, that the 13th Amendment was a cure-all for both slavery and racism. We know there are “problems,” still. We know the KKK still exists, and we’ve heard all of the statistics stating how African-American communities endure excessive rates of crime, poverty, and disease. But we are no longer a racist country, like we used to be “back then.” Right?

Wrong. While it’s true that many of its most disgusting symptoms, such as lynchings, are far, far less prevalent, racism obviously still exists. Oftentimes, it’s been replaced by other, more palatable and easily disguised incarnations. In high school, I watched white classmates sing along to gangsta rap, or call each other “nigga.” While Kakutani claims such lyrics, when used by the actual rap artists, “reclaim[…] the word from its ugly past,” there was nothing being reclaimed in the halls of my high school, by those resoundingly middle-class Caucasians.

Indeed, as I think about my teaching of “The Artificial Nigger” at LSUS, I have to confront a lot of hard truths. I think I had a hard time saying “nigger” in front of my class because I was afraid I would be misinterpreted. I think I was afraid that my students would assume I was a racist. Because, if I’m honest, I think I’m afraid that I am a racist. I’m afraid that because I grew up in a nation that no longer talks about race, except to roll its eyes and say, “Oh, that’s history,” I don’t spend enough time questioning ideas, stereotypes, actions, and cultural messages that are racist. I tell myself, “Some of my best friends are black,” and then I laugh, mostly out of exasperation, at the impossibility of it all. The fact that I’m proud to have black friends disgusts me, even as I’m proud to have black friends. “Look at me!” I think, “I’m not a racist!” As if I deserve some kind of reward. Then again, considering my grandfather was a member of the KKK, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.

Which leads me to my final point about such obfuscations of our past and of our present that Gribben’s censoring of Huckleberry Finn represents, and that is of confrontation. We must confront our own assumptions about race, as a nation, or we risk a dangerous complacency.
And that's just a taste of a long and thoughtful essay on the subject, the whole of which is well worth your time.

I've taught Huck Finn four or five times (maybe more) at the high school level, and every time it led to some of the best discussions I've had with any of my classes, because every time I have made the presence of the word nigger throughout the text a central part of our early discussions, and have often had one of the assignments be an argumentative paper about whether the novel should be taught in schools. Whenever possible, I've used the Norton Critical Edition, because it not only has great annotations, but also some excellent discussion of the controversies the book has incited ever since it was first published (and was first banned because it was thought to encourage bad behavior in youth). Norton also includes the original illustrations, which are useful for discussing representation and history (Earl Briden's useful essay in the Norton edition calls the illustrations a "pictorial countertext").

Eventually, my students have been able to get to the point where they can see the artistry of the novel, the extraordinary scenes on the raft, Twain's tremendous command of language; and they can argue about other things -- the meaning and purpose of the final third of the novel, for instance -- but there's no way to avoid the prevalence of the word "nigger", so that's what I've always dealt with first.

The best discussion I ever had on the topic was with a group of 11th graders when I taught for a year at a yeshiva high school in New Jersey. It was a group of students who mostly didn't much like reading, had spent much of their lives doing whatever they could to avoid reading, and were not particularly interested in doing homework or paying any attention in class. On my first day, one of them told me point blank, "I've never read a whole book in my life, and I'm not going to for this class, either."

Those kids were endlessly frustrating, but I liked them a lot, because there was something wonderfully scrappy about them, something very Huck-like. (The school had pretty much written them off, and they knew it.)

When we started Huck Finn, I said, "First off, we've got to talk about the word 'nigger', because it's everywhere in this book."

The room was silent for the first and maybe only time all year. The skinny white goy, who they all thought was a hick from an alien planet called New Hampshire, had just said that word.

Once they got beyond the shock, eventually the question I anticipated got asked: "Why do they get to use that word, and we don't?" (I've heard this a bunch of times in spaces where no black people are present.)

"Who's they?" I asked.

"Them. You know, black--"

"African American," somebody said.

"Right," the student said. "Those people. Why can they say it and it's okay?"

"I know black folks who would never say that word," I said.

"Yeah, but it's in rap all the time. And on the street. Everywhere. We don't go around calling each other kike all the time."

"So why do you want permission to go around calling people niggers?"

"I don't, but why do they get to say it?"

"Well," I said, "is there a difference between a friend of yours from school here calling you a kike and, say, me calling you a kike? I think if I, as a teacher, and especially as a non-Jewish teacher, called you a kike, I should get in a lot of trouble. Even if you thought I was the best teacher in the world, the nicest teacher in the world, if I did that, I think it's absolutely wrong -- I'm an authority figure, I have a little bit of power over your life, and even if I jokingly said that to you, I think it's terribly wrong. I think you calling your friend that, well, I think that's different, don't you?"

"I don't care if somebody calls me a kike," someone said.

"So you're walking down the street one day and somebody's driving by, sees you wearing your kipa, and screams out the window, 'Hey, kike!' -- you don't care? I don't believe that."

"No. Whatever."

"If it were me," I said, "I'd have all sorts of emotions in a moment like that. I'd want to scream and cry at the same time. I'd hate that person, and I'd hate myself for hating them, for even thinking about them, for letting them make me angry. But I would be angry. Worse, after experiencing something like that, I'd be wary of people I didn't know, I'd wonder if they were staring at me, and if they were staring at me, if they were thinking the same thing -- if they were maybe just a little too well behaved to lean out a car window and scream a terrible word at me, but that maybe, just maybe, they thought the same thing. I'd be suspicious. And I wouldn't really much like living like that."

Silence again. They really thought about it. We continued then to talk about the power of words, about reclaiming negative words, etc.

This was in the second half of the year, and I knew the kids well enough by that point to know that they had really complex lives as observant Jews in a secular society -- a society that, until high school, they had in many ways been sheltered from (I was one of the first non-Jewish teachers many of them had ever had. It led to some very strange, sometimes very good, sometimes just absurd discussions, because I was assumed to be an expert on all things non-Jewish, and to know absolutely nothing whatsoever about Judaism.)

If I remember correctly, I moved the conversation on to their use of the word they, because it's one of those words that always clangs in my ear, a word that seems to hide a million assumptions -- the sort of word that is sometimes necessary, but seldom preferable. I don't remember the rest of the conversation as vividly as I do what I've written above (this was a few years ago now), but I remember thinking how much easier it was to have such a conversation with a group of students who were, to other folks, very much them rather than us. It made finding examples easier, and it made those examples much more powerful and enlightening than with more heterogeneous groups. My students thought of each other as individuals, and they knew that there were tremendous differences among them -- the student, for instance, whose family was not particularly religious but who wanted him to get a good Hebrew education and so sent him to this school sat next to a student whose parents were wary of how very liberal our school was, etc.

In any case, I've written all this out here partly to remember it, but also because it's one of the handful of moments in my teaching career that I can point to with definite pride -- one of the few moments where I truly know that I helped at least a few students think about the world in a more complex way than they had before -- and, indeed, came to think about it in a more complex way than I had before. Such conversations aren't just good for students; they're good for teachers, too. By talking our way through difficult stuff, we taught each other new things.

And it was all because The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain was full of the word nigger.

It was a deeply uncomfortable day in class, and other days were, too, because there is nothing fun in uttering words I loathe. Forcing myself to say nigger in a classroom was bad; forcing myself to say kike in a classroom full of Jewish students was gut-wrenching. But I am extremely glad I didn't use other words, because euphemisms hide the power, and it is the power those words contain in our society that makes such conversations both difficult and necessary. School should be the place for working through difficult, discomforting ideas.

I can illustrate this best, I suppose, with another story from that extraordinary year of my teaching life. The tenth grade English curriculum in the school required the teaching of Merchant of Venice. I was warned of this at my first interview at the school. I spent a lot of time studying and preparing, talking with other teachers, working through how I would approach some of the more difficult elements of the play. At lunch one day, one of the rabbis who had taken a particular interest in my struggles through the year, and who I always enjoyed talking with, asked me how it was going, and I said, "Honestly, it's really hard to be me and to be teaching Merchant of Venice here."

"But here is the best place for them to encounter it, don't you think?" he said, then smiled mischievously as he added, "Even if it's you?"

And he was right. School is the best place to talk through things, if the teacher has been able to create as safe an environment for such conversations as possible -- safe, not comfortable. The rabbi meant, of course, that a yeshiva is the safest place to discuss anti-semitism, but I think the idea applies more broadly. I think teachers have a responsibility to raise and work through difficult, discomforting topics with students, because those topics are not going to disappear if they're not talked about. Students will encounter racism and sexism and homophobia and all sorts of other privileges, entitlements, and entanglements -- they will even, in all likelihood, perpetrate some of those things themselves (I have; haven't we all?). Education shouldn't be about memorizing lots of facts and figures, or about reading pleasant and uncontroversial books. There's a place, certainly, for facts, figures, and pleasant reading. But educators need to have some spark of idealism. We should want to make the world better, and to help empower our students in whatever small ways we can to go forth and help make the world a more beautiful, less painful place. Otherwise, why bother teaching?

Perhaps replacing the word "nigger" with "slave" throughout Huck Finn makes the book better; it certainly doesn't make the world better.

At the end of the year, the student who said he had never finished a book, and didn't ever intend to, told me he'd finished two of our novels that year: Huck Finn and The Great Gatsby. (He was able to read Gatsby because after Huck Finn it felt short, and he liked the story.) Other students told me similar things.

I like to think those kids went off into the world and thought a little bit more about language and race and power than they would have otherwise; that they had a little bit more willingess to see that every them is full of people who think of themselves as individuals and as us.

For various reasons, some far beyond my control, I often felt like a terrible teacher that year, ineffective, my classes a waste of everybody's time. But at least a little bit of what we did with Huck Finn was, I know, worthwhile. And it was worthwhile mostly because we could not ignore the difficulty and discomfort provided by the more than 200 instances of the word nigger in the pages of that glorious and terrible novel.


  1. It's good that while teaching the Jewish kids you felt the need to explain to them how they should feel if they happen to be called k***s by a stranger, and that you equate your authority over the classroom to the situation between the class and African Americans ... It's not that using these words don't make for powerful teaching tools -- they do -- but you dictating the emotions and experiences between races and ethnicities seems pretty offensive.

  2. Way to bravely enter into the spirit of the post, "Anonymous". You raise a valid point, but is there no other way it could have been raised?

    Good post, Matthew. Though I think it's clear that "slave" doesn't make the novel better. (It's been many years since I read it, but is "slave" even always an adequate replacement in terms of the facts of the novel?)

  3. It doesn't sound like dictating to me, but much more like asking students to consider and question their own responses.

  4. Anonymous is giving a pretty uncharitable reading of this post. And being cowardly to boot. JeffV

  5. To replace "nigger" with "slave" does at least two things counter to Twain's apparent intentions. First, the novel is notable for its use of vernacular, so much so that it can take a little while to understand what characters are actually saying; in the new version this key aspect of the vernacular is removed. Second, the textual change diminishes the level of character change that occurs with Huck during the river journey. This is one of those great books that can bring me to tears when Huck decides that he would rather go to Hell than to sell out Jim. While I'm glad that there is a desire to still teach the novel in schools, it saddens to me that it is done at the expense of a valid discussion of racism then and now. I hope that other instructors, like you, will use the original version as the spark to address these complex issues.

    --Eric S.

  6. The anonymous first comment seemed like such a willful misreading of the post that I didn't think responding would be worthwhile, but I suppose I should at least just say that however I represented myself here in the post, and however my words are interpreted by a reader ... "dictating the emotions and experiences between races and ethnicities" seems to me to be a pretty wild interpretation, unless all conversation incited by teachers is dictatorial.

    To some extent, all education is indoctrination, or at least aspires to be (well, maybe all education short of Summerhill ... but even that was trying to indoctrinate students into a particular view of freedom and democracy), and to the charge of trying to get students to think beyond themselves and their experiences, yes, I'm guilty. Beyond that, I think elephants in rooms at least need to be acknowledged, before we all drown in the excrement they leave behind.

  7. First I want to say that this is one of the best posts on this topic I've read to date. I appreciate hearing how you handled this issue in your own teaching.

    I was going to point out that it's a different story in a mixed race classroom that includes black students. In the schools where I've worked, I just don't know if I'd go there. But I'm glad to see that you did and to know that other people do.

    I don't have an issue with this new version myself. The more versions to choose from the better. It's interesting to me that this is what has gotten people so upset. Huck has been abridged many times, turned into a comic book many times, he'll probably end up fighting zombies or vampires any day now. You can bet the language was Balderized every time, too. Where was all this hoopla then?

    There will always be readers who look for the best version, and they'll always look for the original in the end. Huck will survive.