Huckleberry Finn's REAL Controversy
Why Twain's classic will be banned from our schools with or without "nigger"
Recently, NewSouth Books announced plans to release an edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the word "nigger" removed. The publishers believe this will appease school censors. It won't.
I once taught English in a large public high school where Huckleberry Finn collected dust in our bookroom. Officially, it was not banned. But only 12th grade teachers were allowed to use it, and only if they first completed a special racial sensitivity training. One of our teachers actually completed that training, and she was then re-assigned to teach lower grades.
Our school permitted no one to teach this book. They never admitted to any motive other than racial sensitivity, but their actions suggest a different, unspoken reason.
In the same school, every one of our 9th grade English teachers was required to teach To Kill a Mockingbird, no sensitivity training needed. This book, too, uses "nigger" several times. Yet this book is used in so many schools that half my freshmen had already read it in middle school.
King and Thoreau
The real motive for censorship is illustrated by a textbook my students were issued. This textbook included Martin Luther King's essay "Letter from Birmingham Jail," but the textbook editors censored this classic piece heavily. No, they didn't remove the word "nigger," which appears more than once in King's essay. Instead, they removed the many paragraphs in which King accuses authority figures of sometimes making decisions that are morally wrong, and calls on readers to support his defiance of those authority figures.
The authority figures who run our K-12 schools do not want students to hear voices telling them authority figures could make mistakes. So history's greatest rebels are either kept hidden from students altogether or are re-imagined as non-threatening goody-two-shoes. Our schools have so weakened Martin Luther King that many of my students were amazed by the essay's title. "Martin Luther King went to jail?" they asked. They'd never imagined King could have street-cred.
King called on people to defy immoral laws honorably and responsibly. This could be a good lesson, leading rebellious students to seek more responsible outlets and to better articulate their motives. But K-12 schools don't want students articulating rebellious feelings. K-12 schools certainly don't want students rebelling effectively as King did. And many who run our K-12 schools naively believe that if we tell students only bad people defy authorities, then students will choose submission rather than "badness."
When I taught 8th grade history, we used a textbook that includes Henry David Thoreau's classic essay "On Civil Disobedience" (the essay that would later inspire King and Gandhi and other leaders). This inclusion is required by state law. But school administrators do not want Thoreau to inspire their students, so the textbook editors cooperatively remove from Thoreau's call to civil disobedience any statement that might encourage disobedience. (That's like taking a car-owner's manual and cutting out every reference to the car!) What do they leave? Only a few sentences, qualifiers, telling readers not to go too far in disobedience. These qualifiers are taken out of context to misrepresent "On Civil Disobedience" as a shallow call to submission. Students are left to believe Henry David Thoreau was no more important or inspiring than the person who tells you to eat your vegetables and brush your teeth, and students are left to wonder why this man is in a history book at all.
The sharpest distinction between To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn is the issue of submission. Mockingbird's heroine is a girl who generally believes whatever her daddy tells her and does whatever her daddy tells her to do. She would be a child-abuser's dream, and she is the kind of role-model K-12 schools love to push on their students. This well-written book may resonate with a few young readers, but it convinces millions more that literature is just a boring lecture by adults in book-form.
Huckleberry Finn's hero, on the other hand, is a real HERO. Huck is smart enough to escape his abusive father. Huck is strong enough to defy his uncaring government. Ultimately Huck decides he will defy even God Himself to keep his fellow runaway, Jim, from the bonds of slavery and from any god or government that would enforce slavery. Huck is a hero young readers can cheer. This is the kind of book that can inspire young readers to read more books on their own. In the paranoid minds of K-12 authorities, this is a book that could "give kids ideas."
Huckleberry Finn models the kind of responsible disobedience that King calls for in the uncensored "Letter from Birmingham Jail" and that Thoreau calls for in the uncensored "On Civil Disobedience." The novel is almost a meditation on Thoreau's view that one should never "resign his conscience to the legislator." Even Thoreau's argument (echoed by King) that the rebel must willingly accept the legal consequences for defiance is exemplified by Huck's famous declaration, "All right, then, I'll go to Hell."
As our schools bury the rebellious thoughts and actions of our nation's most important minds, they likewise bury the rebellious books of our nation's most important authors.
Huckleberry Finn uses "nigger" as frequently as the average rap album does, and that offers a handy excuse to school administrators who want to pretend they are trying to educate and inspire students when in reality they are trying to control students first and educate them last. Administrators see an opportunity to ban this inspiring example of disobedience and to blame the ban on over-sensitive Blacks.
By marring America's most classic novel, NewSouth Books may deprive school authorities of an excuse, but it won't solve the problem. Change will come only when people demand that schools take education more seriously, that schools educate even at the risk of giving students ideas and even at the risk of inspiring students to think for themselves. Critical thinking is, after all, the goal of any meaningful education.
When public high school students can finally read Huckleberry Finn as Twain intended it and can read "Letter from Birmingham Jail" as King intended it, students will finally find school worthwhile, and the adults who run our schools will finally earn the respect they have long sought.