Monday, January 17, 2011

The sanitizing of Huckleberry Finn

(The following is my column for the Newton County News and KYTV/KSPR.)

Memory is a wonderful thing.

More than four decades have passed since I heard the honey sweet, magnolia-tinted voice of Mrs. Jean Rowe as she stood in front of my sixth grade class at Triway Elementary School.

Not for one second did Mrs. Rowe ever abandon the genteel Southern manner that made her one of my all-time favorite teachers.
During one part of the day, she stood in front of us, book in hand, and simply read to us.

The book, one in which she took particular delight in reading was Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a work described by Ernest Hemingway as the great American novel.

And as she read, her voice sometimes barely above a whisper, not one person in the class said a word. No one wadded up paper, drummed his fingers against the top of his desk, or leaned forward to comment to his neighbor.

The students sat in complete silence, entranced both by the commanding voice of Mrs. Rowe and by the timeless prose of Mark Twain.
To this day, when I think of Huck Finn, Jim, the Widow Douglas, Tom Sawyer, and the Duke and the Dauphin, I think of Mrs. Rowe and of that lily-white classroom of long ago.

Considering the makeup of the student body at Triway at that time, it is not surprising that the teaching of Huckleberry Finn did not result in the controversy that occurs today if a teacher even dares consider using that book in a classroom setting. Though we learned quickly the brutal inhumanity of the institution of slavery, we did not spend any time discussing the “n” word. I knew it was a word I was not supposed to use and I did not use it, but I had no idea why it was so offensive.

Wherever Samuel Clemons is, he must be smiling at the idea that his book, published in 1884, is still in the headlines 127 years later.
Over the past few decades, it has become one of the most banned books in schools across the United States. It has been the subject of numerous protests, primarily from African Americans concerned about the 219 times the “n” word is featured.

The latest controversy surrounding The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn stems from a sanitized version of the book offered by Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University.

In each of the 219 instances when the “n” word is used, Gribben substitutes the word “slave.” For the other most egregious example of Twain offending modern day sensibilities, the use of the name “Injun Joe” as one of the villains, Gribben simply changes “Injun” to “Indian.”

Gribben’s concept that the changing of the two words will cause schools to reassess their decisions to remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the shelves is a noble one, but it is extremely misguided.

Whitewashing (in the most literal meaning of the word) the words of Mark Twain is diminishing the power of his words. Few books have ever laid bare the evils of slavery and the sheer stupidity of racism as effectively as Mark Twain’s “children’s” classic.

Should we sanitize books about the Holocaust because they may offend our sensibilities? How would we feel about removing references to bullying from children’s books because they might encourage similar behavior?

There can be no doubt that words have power and the “n” word, in particular, has a damaging power to a large segment of our population.
What better reason to make sure that all students, black and white, have a better understanding of those times, the historical use of the word, and the strides that society has made from those dark 19th century days that Twain described.

The teaching of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn requires an astute teacher with both the understanding and the skill to help students interpret the work in both its historical and literary essence.

I was lucky enough to have a teacher like Mrs. Jean Rowe, a woman who would have been just as skillful at teaching Huck Finn to a racially-mixed group as she was in bringing its magic alive to 30 white children in that long-ago classroom.

Hopefully, the Mrs. Rowes of the future will be allowed to keep this great American novel, a condemnation of racism and slavery, a fixture in our classrooms.

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