The Controversy of Huckleberry Finn

January 12, 2011
By John Vahedi-Faridi BRONZE, Norfolk, Virginia
John Vahedi-Faridi BRONZE, Norfolk, Virginia
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

When it comes to the topic of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, most of us will agree that the topic is sensitive and conflicting. Where the agreement usually ends, however, is on the question of whether to ban or require Mark Twain’s classic novel. Whereas some are convinced that Huck Finn is a racist novel that needs to be banned from the high school curriculum, others maintain that Huck Finn, as the first form of American literature, remain on the required high school reading list. Twain’s treatment of Jim in the story, his use of the “n-word,” and the ideas of slavery and racism are the major issues surrounding the novel. Although I grant that critics can interpret Huckleberry Finn as racist and should not remain a required reading in every high school, I still maintain that schools not ban the novel but rather on a school-by-school basis decide whether to use it.
Mark Franek and Nyaka NiiLampti in the 2005 English Journal publication of her “Shoot the Author, Not the Reader” empathize with struggling black students and want Huckleberry Finn banned in any predominantly white high school where African American students struggle in a small minority. Franek and NiiLampti believe that “Twain stereotypes blacks” (20) in his portrayal of Jim. Initially, Twain describes Jim as “Miss Watson’s big nigger” (3). In the beginning of the novel, readers see Jim as superstitious, idiotic, and gullible. Once the novel begins to unfold, however, Jim consistently acts as a noble human being and a loyal friend while Twain portray him as such. In fact, Jim provides a positive example for Huck to follow as the only responsible adult figure. Franek and NiiLampti claim that schools force an ultimatum upon black students: Either to undergo the deeply unpleasant experience of reading the novel, or fail. With proper care and appropriate teaching abilities, black students need not face the choice described by the two authors. Teachers will need to prepare their students for the novel’s use of the “n-word” and clarify the historical background in which Twain was writing in. With these preparations teachers can alleviate any misgivings and misbelieves student may have had about Mark Twain.
Paula Leider in the 2006 Multicultural Education publication of her article entitled “Does Huck Finn Belong in My Classroom? Reflections of Curricular Choice, Multicultural Education, and Diversity” questions whether removing Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum is the right decision. At first, Leider expresses her gratefulness that due to the absence of Huckleberry Finn she no longer needs to deal with “the issue of racism in [her] classroom” (29). The presence of racism in the novel portrays the common feelings of the time period and the reality of black people’s suffering. Even with racism flourishing in the novel, Twain fashions a building experience when Huck, after tricking Jim, works himself up “to go and humble [himself] to a nigger” (65). Despite the racist environment in which he lives, Huck recognizes Jim’s human qualities. Modern standards would see the use of the “n-word” and the idea that Huck’s faced a difficult action as strictly racist, but if one refers to the novels time period, Huck’s acts majorly progressive. Unfortunately, the necessity of overlooking ones preconceptions of the novel and focusing on the inner meaning remains so great that teachers must not have the controversy of the novel intimidate them and remain comfortable encouraging their students. Leider explains how Twain uses Huck’s development as a symbol of the country’s development. Huck’s mind is open to possibilities that his upbringing didn’t instill in him and so the later generations of Americans will not be born with the prejudices of their forefathers.
Ann Lew in the 1993 English Journal publication of her article entitled “Teaching Huck Finn in a Multiethnic Classroom” strongly believes that Huckleberry Finn should remain a required reading but taught with guidance and knowledge of the historical context. Lew understands that if she were to teach Huckleberry Finn she “must present the novel in its historical context” (17). Twain exposes many of his period’s stereotypes through his depiction of the duke and the dauphin, for example, when the duke asks, “Do you reckon a nigger can run across money and not borrow some of it?” (134). The duke implies that black people are inherently untrustworthy, parallel with reality, where white people used slaves as scapegoats in many situations. Whites in the South were more likely to believe that a slave would steal money, rather than suspect that a fellow white person would. Without historical context readers see Twain as racist, however, Twain merely satirizes white society’s misconception of its superiority over black society. Lew agrees that Twain, for most of the book, takes a strong moral stance against slavery in protest of society. Teachers must explain how most of the racist episodes in Huck Finn are Twain’s attempt to speak out against white society and the prejudices that ensue.

Since its original publication in 1884, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the masterpiece of Mark Twain, has caused much controversy. The consistent use of the word “nigger” in conjunction with explicit instances of slavery and racism make critics condemn the novel as racist. Huck has lived his whole life learning that blacks, as inferior entities, should not be considered human; only through his adventures with Jim does he find himself struggling with his preconceptions, and what he believes morally correct. Condemning Huckleberry Finn as racist, critics fail to see Twain’s attempt to expose the ignorance and absurd views held by white people during his time period. Emphasizing that Twain’s use of satire does not make him racist will comfort students and allow them to more easily dive into the story. Ideas of racism have changed throughout the years and teachers must provide their students with sufficient historical background of Twain’s period and how he made revolutionary strides forward to better society. If a single student in the classroom wishes to not say the word “nigger” then teachers must find a suitable replacement word. Finally, teachers must have the confidence to teach Huckleberry Finn. Many teachers, their confidence lacking, will fail to teach Huckleberry Finn properly. If teachers believe they can teach Huckleberry Finn despite of the racial controversies surrounding the novel, then it should be their decision. The final choice of whether to teach Huckleberry Finn must be left to the teachers.

Franek, Mark, and Nyaka NiiLampti. "Shoot the Author, Not the Reader. " English Journal 94.6 (2005): 20-22. ProQuest Education Journals, ProQuest. Web. 24 Nov. 2010.

Leider, Paula. "Does Huck Finn Belong in My Classroom? Reflections of Curricular Choice, Multicultural Education, and Diversity. " Multicultural Education 13.4 (2006): 49-50. ProQuest Education Journals, ProQuest. Web. 24 Nov. 2010.

Lew, Ann. “Teaching “Huck Finn” in a Multiethnic Classroom.” English Journal 82.7 (1993): 16-21. Web. 27 Nov 2010.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Dover. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1994.

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