Several months ago there was a big brouhaha down in San Jose because some parents objected to the required reading of Huckleberry Finn. I believe that one of the major complaints was that the children had to read sections of the book out loud in front of their classmates. At the time I was put out with the latest interference of the PC police. Oh geez here we go again with oversensitive, whining parents, why can’t they concentrate on real issues like guns in the classroom?
Huck Finn is the American classic written by one of the finest writers in the world and sure Mark Twain used the N word but his writing was reflective of the time and taken in context it really isn’t that bad. Besides he portrayed the slaves sympathetically.
Well isn’t it funny a little more education can influence an opinion. For the last month or so I have been reading Samuel Clemens with my son. We read Tom Sawyer first. Wow, what a great adventure story. When we came first across the word, nigger. I explained it as well as I could to a nine year old, the history of slavery in this country, what white European people did to people from Africa. How the word used then and how it is used today. How Afro-americans feel about it. I was also determined to say it and not worry about it. No problem in Tom Sawyer, it is only used a handful of times.
But oh when we got to Huckleberry Finn, that was an entirely different story. The N word is used hundreds of times. At first I just read it but I soon found that reading the word out loud reinforced its power. It began to stick in my craw. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Boy is that nursery rhyme wrong. Words are very powerful and they can hurt and destroy.I now suddenly understood in a visceral way the objections parents are having in Santa Clara county. I could empathize with the young black teenager required to read that word out loud in front of his classmates. I found myself replacing that word with helper or slave or just substituting Jim╒s name. It did detract a little from the story but made me feel better. So I still think that Huckleberry Finn should be required reading for high school students but I definitely don’t think that students should have to read it out loud in class.
This is Michael Ellis with a new Perspective.