Learning from Literature: Huck Finn

January 14, 2011
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Huck Finn
Offensive language, bad grammar, racial bias, and reckless adventure make a short list of the characteristics which lead critics to attack Mark Twain’s book, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This novel, a story of a young boy named Huck Finn and his adventures with a run-away slave, has raised controversy in society and with schools since its publication. More recently however, schools across the country have started banning the book, claiming that Huckleberry Finn remains inappropriate for students at the high school level. Granted, there are scenes in the book that are clearly racist, such as the constant use of the “n-word” when referring to Jim, a run-away slave. Racism appears other places in the book as well: when Huck takes advantage of Jim’s gullibility and lack of education, tricking him with a snake skin, and later tries to convince him that a series of dramatic events were a dream, which both confuses and upsets Jim. Today, the ongoing debate with critics and supporters of this novel remains over whether or not these racist moments outnumber the certain points in the book which portray Jim as a highly respectable man. Huck’s growth throughout the book as he sheds his childhood views on African Americans and gains a new perspective on how slaves are people too shows the same way which America grew as a country to have this realization. These racist moments in the book present teaching opportunities to inform students about prejudice in society today, which can be a constant problem in schools. On the one hand, I agree with critics of the novel that the story contains racist and other inappropriate elements; but on the other hand, I still insist that the teaching of this novel can be, and would be, a necessary learning experience for students of high school English classes.
In the summer 2006 article “Does Huck Finn Belong in my Classroom?” published in Multicultural Education, Paula Leider suggests that while Huckleberry Finn certainly contains racist elements, it may be necessary to discuss these issues, instead of ignoring or banning them. Mark twain consistently uses the derogatory term “nigger” to refer to the runaway slave accompanying Huck. This word contains bias but Twain uses it not because he or Huck is a racist, but because in my opinion it portrays the time in which the book was written, and evokes strong emotion from anyone who reads it. It can be difficult for a teacher who has a classroom of students, some who are white and some who African American, to deal with the inappropriate acts of people in the novel. Leider admits that when the school she taught at first banned this book, she felt relief knowing she was, “no longer needing to feel concern about how [she] dealt with the issue of racism in [her] classroom” (Leider 49).Following the banning though, the thought occurred to her about how much of a tool this book could have been while dealing with that same racism her school felt so necessary to protect students from. Paula reveals that, “in an age where students are exposed to agents of hate…I question whether removing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum is a step in the right direction in the “war” against prejudice” admitting that maybe the school board miscalculated the balance of this book’s good and evil sides (Leider 50).This article summarizes the need for this literary masterpiece to be used for education, and not banned because it can be difficult to be dealt with (Leider).
While the opponents argue that in this book Mark Twain makes Huck Finn racist, the article in New York Times Upfront “Mark Twain’s Bad Boy”, written by Suzanne Bilyeu, suggests that Mark Twain never meant for it to be that way. Bilyeu references the ending of the book when Huck says, “If I had none what trouble it was to write a book, I wouldn’t a tackled it” trying to prove that when he finished, Twain knew controversies would arise, but he did not mean for it to be that way (220). Growing up in Missouri, Twain’s father owned slaves on their farm. While fascinated by the stories of these slaves, there can be no doubt that Twain was highly influenced to have opinions on slaves. But the same way as he grew up to change his views, in the book Huck trades his derogatory views on African Americans when the time he spends with Jim increases. In the novel, after Jim gets hurt and demands a doctor, Huck declares that “he was white inside” (207). Readers could examine this and say that the comment sounds racist, but really Huck telling Jim that he is white means something complimentary during that era. In her article Bilyeu quotes Nat Hentoff describing this change in Huck and showing how despite growing up in a town of ignorance, when he bonds with Jim he begins “Shucking off that blind ignorance because this runaway slave is the most honest, perceptive, fair-minded man this white boy has ever known” (Bilyeu 20). The article continues to declare that this book contains a great moral for all children of any colors in schools (Bilyeu).
Whether or not schools, school boards, or libraries think that the material of the novel appears racist, it would be hard to deny the literary expertise of the writing. Mark Twain is one of the most celebrated writers in history. Kelley Taylor’s article, “Help! My Teacher Used the N-Word!” gives advice on how teachers can make this book appropriate. She recognizes the issues that arise from this book, and the difficulties it can present as a teacher. However, knowing the sensitivity that it can cause in classrooms does not give reason enough to ban it because according to Taylor, “Historic literature has a legitimate place in schools” (Taylor 62). In addition, she points out that it’s more about how you teach the subject, not the subject. There are multiple comments in the book, such as when Huck thinks to himself, “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so” where a reader can view the sentence as racist, or as a testimony of Huck’s change (117). Huck realizing that Jim has feelings as strong as his own about certain things, like family, brings on a turning point in the novel where Huck begins ignoring everything taught to him about African Americans and starts forming his own opinions. Schools teach classes such as religion and sex education, which can be very sensitive, often time without controversy because of teachers familiarity with how to handle these courses without offending students. If the issue of racism could be handled more regularly, like with the teaching of Huckleberry Finn, as a country we might find a more tolerant youth.
Like in Taylor’s article, the issue of this book should not be if to teach it, but how to teach it. The first step to teaching Huckleberry Finn should be to gauge the student’s response to the racist elements of the book. Taylor’s article discusses the benefit of using other emotional words such as “cancer” or “pregnant” and asking students how it makes them feel to hear these words. Ask how students feel about the “n-word”, and use the most generally comfortable form of that word. Feeling comfortable, students will be able to talk about all parts of this book. Classrooms should be a place to discuss the history of such racist words, and explain why it is entirely inappropriate in today’s culture. Like most of today’s teenagers, Huck Finn has moments when he does not behave, or act in an acceptable manner. As Huck grows up however, classroom leaders can explain the necessity for students to grow as people and ignore preconceptions, the same way Huck did with Jim. If this country wants high school students to function in a society that so highly condemns racism, those same students have to be taught about it, discuss it, and learn from it; which can only happen if they have the proper resources to do so. If Huckleberry Finn were required reading in high school English courses, a perfect environment for discussion of race issues would be made by creating an invaluable educational opportunity combined with monitoring of these sensitive subjects. America has grown to become one of the world’s greatest examples of tolerance towards all race or religions, and if required in classroom readings, there would be no greater proof than Huckleberry Finn.





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