Down the Mississppi

Some days, I hate to admit to being a liberal. I want to put on a “I Love Ann Coulter” T shirt and blend into the crowd. Well…not really. Every flavor of crazy is still crazy. But today was one of those days when the crazies made us thoughtful liberals look as if we should sit in a corner with a dunce cap duct taped on our heads.

Today’s walk of shame? The scholars who are editing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn so it doesn’t offend modern audiences. I teach high school English at an urban school. My classes are generally over 50% African-American, and usually about 70% free lunch. I teach students reading well below grade level as well as students who will succeed at college.  The issues these professors are attempting to address are ones I wrestle with on a regular basis–and I think they need Steve and Blue to sit them in the Thinking Chair until they really grasp the issues and possible solutions.

One prof laments Huck Finn falling from the grade school curriculum. I wonder how extensively he’s looked at typical grade school reading lists. Twain’s masterpiece, with long, complex sentences, flowery language, and dialogue written in dialect, is well above what is considered grade school reading level now. In fact,  the books I see even middle school students reading are much shorter, and written at a much lower reading level.

That’s without even issues like references to Huck smoking, Pap’s drinking, Huck’s alliance with con artists, and Huck’s criticism of the Widow’s religion. Grade school?  Those issues alone make the content controversial for some teens. And I’m ignoring the way test prep has overtaken elementary curriculum, too–how many novels do these professors believe elementary students have time to read? I suspect their number would be way too high.

More importantly, though, is the “inappropriate” racially charged language. I’ve used the book Huck Finn in classes about 6 different years, if I remember correctly. Most recently, about four years ago. I have it as an optional book for projects and outside reading, too. I’ve had poor kids and middle-class kids read it, black, white, mixed…and I doubt I use the book in class again.

The language isn’t the problem. It’s an easy scapegoat, and easy (although artistically questionable) to fix. There are four bigger problems. First, American culture has changed so dramatically that there is little in the book that kids who are essentially non-readers (or easily bored) can relate to. Much of the reading that is done now is “relevant” in some way–contemporary, modern, accessible. The pacing of Huck’s journey, the detailed, meandering storytelling style–getting kids into that is difficult, especially when most of them have little or no experience in nature. A surprising percentage of my students don’t swim–rafting does not catch their imagination.

Second, related to #1, most students don’t have a romantic image of running away into nature, fending for themselves on the river. There’s always concern about why social services don’t step in, who should be in charge of making sure Huck is ok–or why he’s not in juvy as a delinquent. And the assumption that Jim and Huck are sexually involved, that Jim is possibly taking advantage of Huck (rarely, vise versa)–that’s come up every time I’ve taught it.

Third, the overdrawn characters–like the Duke, and the feuding family–make no sense to the students. It’s stupid, and wastes their time. Even when explaining that the journey is the story, and how mythic journeys progress (citing works they tend to  know like National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, Little Miss Sunshine, and others), the cultural context of the characters is lost on them, and they read the SparkNotes and figure they’ve got the idea, so it’s all good.

Fourth–and this is a big point–even if every racial epithet is removed, racism is evident in the book. Take a deep breath before yelling “No” at me–I’m not claiming Twain was racist. For students who do read the book, especially students of color, discussion of Jim’s status, of Jim’s superstitions, of the elaborate ruse Tom Sawyer uses to “free” the already freed Jim–those have to be discussed. Tom Sawyer treats Jim badly, and does so entirely because he saw Jim as just a slave. Discussing the end of the book involves discussing that, and it can lead to fascinating discussion. The Widow Douglas does the moral, modern thing, flaunting convention and freeing Jim. Huck cares about Jim. It’s possible to make the case that the book is not ultimately racist, but the conversations about the issue must occur to treat the book and the characters with intellectual honesty.

And that leads me back to the N word. Sigh. No, I don’t enjoy dealing with that type of language, and I don’t use it or understand the attitudes behind racial slurs. (Some people would suggest that’s because if I’m going to insult someone, I go much more personal; doing it based on something as obvious as race is just wrong) I saw an African-American lit book a few years ago that changed “colored” and “Negro” to “African-American,” even in speeches by Martin Luther King Jr and writings by W.E.B DuBois and Malcolm X.  When we were reading King’s I’ve Been to The Mountaintop speech a couple years ago, I mystified one class by stopping the reading part way through and sending students through my bookshelves to find another version of the letter–King’s references to race had all been changed to read African-American.

Here’s a fact: African-Americans know they are not Caucasian-Americans. It’s not a secret. We can talk about it. We should talk about it, so we can see if and when it matters. The inability to discuss the real issues of race mean we can’t discuss the real issues plaguing America.

Part of discussing race means dealing with language. It means having the hard conversation about why Twain used those words, and if using them makes him racist, no question. And it means listening and considering when some students automatically say yes, Twain had to be racist.

Then…we discuss whether Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Tupac, Kanye, Spike Lee, and a list of others are racists. What’s the difference between those people–and even white performers like Eminem–using language that would get me fired? And we consider what Bill Cosby and Obama and Oprah say about race, and why students yell words down the hall that their grandparents and greatgrandparents found demeaning and offensive.

I use Malcolm X in my classroom, and Martin Luther King, and Zora Neale Hurston, and Lorriane Hansberry. I sometimes even use Pat Conroy’s Lords of Discipline, a more racially charged book than any Twain ever wrote.  I’ve only had a couple students through my entire career who did not read a piece because they found it offensive–and I gave alternate assignments without any problem. But most of the time, the hard conversations and the difficult prep work required to have students read works like that have paid off in fascinating discussions and thoughtful essays.

The professors who think they can revive Twain by wiping some bleach over his words may need to climb down from their Ivory-white Tower for a semester and co-teach with me. It would be fun–for once, I wouldn’t be the most clueless liberal in my school!

2 thoughts on “Down the Mississppi

  1. I always learn something when I read you. I always think. I have also always mentally applauded your perspective and forthright approach to the issues you address.
    You rock! A fan.

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  2. I’m not entirely sure how accurate what I think is, but here’s a thought.

    The articles & books students could most engage with and think critically about has been divorced from the standard canon of classics for…oh…I dunno, let’s say since when that canon was first established 70-80 odd years ago. When that canon was established, it was established with the classical education of a scion of the upper-middle class in mind. (You know, the class that the upwardly mobile working and middle classes were being setup to aspire to become.) It was also established to fit their notions of propriety. Those notions of propriety have changed some, but not enough over the past 80 odd years.

    Sure, new people have kinda been added as adjuncts to the canon. Minority writers discussing race and ethnic identity issues, as well as some more oddball stuff like Vonnegut. But some of the best stuff of the past 30 or 40 years seems conspicuously absent because of at least 3 reasons. First, they’re generally not novels, plays, or essays. It’s stuff like blog articles, non-fiction books, and graphic novels. Second, the worldview and manners they embrace strike the defenders of propriety as decidedly uncouth, in spite of the excellence in writing. Third is that some of the very best generally assumes some background knowledge; as our society has become more educated on average and information more easily available, I suspect this will only become more true.

    More succinctly, less is written today that’s fun to read but makes you think. We have trashy fiction for fun and serious non-fiction for thinking.

    I guess my point is Huck Finn doesn’t connect well with modern students. But there’s a whole lot of stuff that we study because it’s traditional but that really isn’t well-suited to reading now. Huck Finn hardly seems special that way.

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