On Books, Racism, Boys, Reading, Mark Twain, Huck Finn, and Martin Luther King Jr. (Whew)

A number of things happened yesterday.

1) I was avoiding some work I had to do by acting like being on Twitter was work (I had really almost convinced myself) and finslippy twittered tweeted wrote something along the lines of "Is anyone out there planning on posting for MLK day?" And while I didn't exactly register my response, upon reflection I know that I had one, and that it was an unworthy, weak response, which was this: "Why would I post about that? I write a blog about children's lit, what does it have to do with me?"

2) I was listening to Z100 (I think) and the announcer said "Make sure your kids know who Martin Luther King was tomorrow, make sure they know why they're getting the day off" and I thought to myself, irritably, "They can't get through New York City Public School without knowing that, what does it have to do with me?"

3) I read this piece by Lorrie Moore, a truly excellent writer (if you've somehow missed Birds of America you should close your computer and run out and buy it RIGHT NOW, though it might make you cry).

4) All of this was after reading this smart thoughtful piece on Huck Finn, and thinking "OK, now I know what I agree with, I will stop thinking about racism in Twain now."

Seeing as many people won't necessarily go to the links above, I will do my best to give a sense of what the heck I am talking about.


First of all, the arguments concern a new edition of Twain's classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which removes all trace of the word nigger (I apologize for bringing that word once more into the world, but it seems disingenuous to call it the n-word for purposes of this discussion), and replaces it with slave or man or…something other than the original word. And everyone is up in arms about it. The piece on the Horn Book blog reprints what he wrote about a similar attempt years ago, noting that to remove the word changes the meaning entirely, and by papering over the racism that is part and parcel of the book's reality, it only makes it more racist, as if washing the blood off one's hands makes that person no longer a murderer (melodramatic metaphor mine not his). He says the book is what it is, try to bowdlerize it and you remove the stern sharp irony that Twain put there.

I read this and thought, "Yes, this makes sense." And I felt that was the end of it. Then this past Sunday I read Moore.

She, not just as a writer, but as the mother of a black teenage son, says that this book does not belong in high school. She believes (NB: because she is a very subtle and sharp writer, and I may well be blurring her words and thoughts due to my being just blurrier in general so really do go back and read it, because she's thoughtful and smart and worth it) that to use this book to introduce literature to boys, particularly black boys, is basically offensive and wrong: it's asking them to read about themselves being called nigger, and if anyone says "Wait no," blowing them off, because "Well, it's important for the book's historical accuracy." She notes that no one would ask kids to read a book that uses the terms kike or bitch. She talks of taking a long drive with her son with an audio version of Huck Finn playing on the speakers, and watching him slowly inch his headphones over his ears to listen to hip-hop instead.

And reading her made me realize just how narrow my vision is. To talk about the book as literature only is to ignore the way it is being used in schools; to read it as a white, Jewish middle-aged lady (yeesh, that looks bad when I type it out like that, but I guess that's what culturally identifying people does) is an entirely different matter from reading it as a teenager, or a black person, or a boy, or a man, or…. And it matters. It matters because (despite what many high school students will tell you) high school matters. It's a big part of where and how and whether people decide to go to college; it's a place where people learn about literature; it's a place that introduces kids to what the wider world thinks and knows and believes—and what we think it is acceptable to believe. And as such it bears some of the same burden that parents do: be careful of what you say, because it carries a greater weight with its listeners than you are probably ready to acknowledge.

None of which is to say it's OK to change the text of the book. I think it's pretty clear that it's not. But Moore questions whether it makes sense to teach it in high school; instead, she says,

"Huckleberry Finn” is suited to a college course in which Twain’s obsession with the 19th-century theater of American hucksterism — the wastrel West, the rapscallion South, the economic strays and escapees of a harsh new country — can be discussed in the context of Jim’s particular story (and Huck’s).

An African-American 10th grader, in someone’s near-sighted attempt to get him newly appreciative of novels, does not benefit by being taken back right then to a time when a young white boy slowly realizes, sort of, the humanity of a black man, realizes that that black man is more than chattel even if that black man is also full of illogic and stereotypical superstitions.

Here's the thing: I am not sure that I agree with her. She's right about so much. We must think of who the students are. We must think of what we're teaching, and how we're teaching it. Huck Finn is the source of all American literature, and it deserves to be credited and studied as such. But is that what we'er teaching in a standard high school English class? I don't know. I think of the books I read in high school—The Great Gatsby, The House of Mirth—both of which are pretty explicity anti-semitic. And pretty much everything you read is sexist. But that's because we are sexist—we, as a people, are steeped in sexism and racism and antisemitism and pretty much every other ugly human trait. And if we're looking at literature that can last, the stuff we know has lasted is older, when people were a lot less self-conscious or aware about committing that to the page.

The answer can't be to go for inoffensive literature. The only real antidote to all the horrors of ourselves is to look at people as humans: individual, particular, horrible and wonderful humans. And that's what, to my mind at least, makes literature great. We can read Anna Karenina and see that dull stiff miserable Karenin is a person, just as capable of greatness, and pettiness, and grace as any one of us. The scene where he tries to talk of his troubles to his colleague, where he forms and reforms the sentence, "You have heard about my troubles," but can't bring himself to say it. The scene in which he forgives Anna—these are moments when, I hope, everything else falls away and we open our hearts to him just as we would to any other person whose humanity we fully acknowledged.

And this all begs the question as well: what is the purpose of English in high school, of reading in high school? Is it to teach kids the history of literature? Is it to teach them to appreciate literature? I don't know.

But I do know that it all made me think about my own blinkered vision of the world, my own reflexive recourse to my version of things. Today is when we honor, or try to do our best to honor, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (No, it's not his actual birthday, as I wrangled it over with Chestnut. Yes that was…uh, a few days ago. OK, Chestnut, exactly 10 days ago, sorry. Man, that public school MLK curriculum is thorough.) Because it is a better world because of those who have done so much to help the rest of us do what we're supposed to do: be reminded of the humanity of others, of all of us. Thank you, Dr. King.

7 thoughts on “On Books, Racism, Boys, Reading, Mark Twain, Huck Finn, and Martin Luther King Jr. (Whew)

  1. Yes, though it’s tricky because if it’s about the beginning of our literature it really is Huck Finn. Langston Hughes should be read, but he didn’t start American Literature. Drat that Mark Twain! Maybe we should just go to the beginning of novels and they could read The Golden Ass and then everyone would be happy! Who doesn’t love a golden ass?

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  2. Crap, I bypassed the whole thing and wrote about the damn Golden Globes. But I certainly did do a lot of MLK discussion with my kindergardener. She told me he would have been 82 this year, so there’s that NY public school curriculum again, and she learned a cuddly version of the civil rights movement — Rosa Parks, not judging people on color of their skin, non-violent protest — that she kinda absorbed. This was at least a step up from the Thanksgiving lesson she got which featured lots of fun facts about “the indians.”
    As far as Huck Finn is concerned? Hmm. Maybe read a section and then put it into literary and historical context? Unless you really make kids understand why they’re hearing this language in the context of a high school class, it probably isn’t worth the inflammatory upheaval.

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  3. Great, informative post! I, too, read that Lorrie Moore (her short story about Peed-Onk was life-changing for me)and think her “take” on the whole thing is probably the most definitive. I cringe when I see or hear what high schoolers are reading in some of the elite private schools – I really think it’s too much, too early.

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  4. There are a lot of really good books out there. More than can ever be covered in a high school curriculum. Why put a lot of effort into sanitizing one particular book, watering it down, destroying its essence, making it palatable, when there are certainly other books that could address the same topic in a more respectful way?
    I was recently in a grade 9 science class where one kid (white) kept yelling out NINJA! for no reason at all. Until eventually one of the two black kids in the class turned around and started pounding on him. It turned out that they had been reading To Kill A Mockingbird in English class and their teacher had told them to use the word Ninja in place of the offensive slur. Well, that really worked well, didn’t it! Now, I love TKAM. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. But maybe society has changed to the point where it’s no longer suitable for grade nines to read in school.

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  5. Holy crap, lb, ninja indeed. The human race can be so dispiriting sometimes.
    The only thing is: Huck Finn is read, I think, not to be about its “topic” but because of its role as the originator of the voice of American literature, right? Though maybe that’s not why they’re assigning it? Alas, I have no knowledge of the logic of high school curricula.

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  6. My son just read Huck Finn in his 10th grade Am. lit class (NYC, public school) and I actually think it’s a perfect time to read it. The book truly challenges racist thinking in a way that is striking at the time, and is still striking today. If the language is watered down, so too the emotional sting. Kids who have mostly been brought up as “PC” get a chance to reflect on the unfairness that the most noble character of the book Jim is literally sold down the river and betrayed by the very likeable and recognizable main character Huck. The white kids see themselves in that, and maybe the black kids do too.
    BTW in his class they also read Langston Hughes, other Harlem Renaissance authors, including We Be Cool and rap lyrics. (Speaking of which have you heard the language in those songs lately?? Much worse than even 10years ago, popular among teens black and white.) If we as parents abide by it in popular culture, we should at least see a teachable moment for racist language in literature.

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