Thursday, January 6, 2011

Huck Finn and the 'n word'

Here's the Scripps Howard column this week. I'm not sure I agree entirely with myself about the argument I make here. I don't favor censorship at all. But I think a lot of anti-censorship folks might be too cavalier about the feelings of people who legitimately find "Huckleberry Finn" hurtful, and I think it might be useful to contemplate that a little bit more.

Anyway, here goes. You know where to send your angry e-mail:

You can't pray a lie. And you can't have Huck Finn -- not the real Huck Finn, anyway -- without his frequent and casual use of the racial slur known as "the n-word." Mark Twain's novel is a document of a brutal time and place in American history, and the depths of that era's brutality to African-Americans cannot be fully contemplated apart from the constant, almost banal repetition of the term throughout the book.

Rather than remove the word from "Huckleberry Finn," though, there's another option that English teachers should consider: Maybe it is time to remove the book from high school curricula and leave it to be taught entirely at the college level.

That seems counterintuitive. "Huckleberry Finn," after all is perhaps the greatest American novel of all. Who can argue with the message of a book in which a young Southern boy grows from seeing a black man as a piece of property to recognizing their shared humanity? That argument is easy to make -- if you are white.

If you are a black reader, though, it is possible a book that makes the case that "African Americans are people too!" seems silly, perhaps even offensively obvious. Wrap that message inside a blanket of racial slurs, and it's easy to see why many readers could care less about context and instead find "Huckleberry Finn" to be almost purely hurtful.

Understand: "Finn" is a great novel. It is not necessarily a novel best read by the youngsters who are the intended audience for Gribben's bowdlerization. You can't take sex scenes out of "Tropic of Cancer" or the sadism from the Marquis de Sade's novels and have them make sense. We let readers discover the unexpurgated texts on their own, and save the classroom discussions for college. Perhaps it's time for "Huckleberry Finn" to join them on the shelf of classics that require careful handling and mature readers.

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