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Sharon McCoy <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 9 Dec 2004 09:41:24 -0500
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I live in a county where the racial population is distributed similarly to
Jeff’s former student.  The county as a whole, is about 40% African
American, 60% white and other, the schools, about 60% African American, 40%
white and other--as they say down here in Georgia.  Where I grew up the
categories were “white” and “black and other”; it depends on what you’re
trying to prove,  but that’s a conversation all its own.

Jeff, I’d suggest that Ms. Viall to look at her school’s cafeteria for the
answer to her question.

Here, in elementary schools, the lunch tables are a refreshing ethnic and
racial blending, largely unself-conscious and based on classrooms and common
interest in “I Spy” games and gross-out humor.

By middle school and high school, the cafeterias look different, tables
self-segregated without apparent animosity or design, only a few unusual
students drifting across the racial and ethnic divides, now eating here, now
there, generally accepted everywhere, but definitely odd.  Occasional racial
tensions between students flare up, but they are the exception rather than
the rule.

But why the divide?  Where does it come from?  What is the divide?   Why do
so few of the students have whatever it takes to cross the lines, to want to
cross the lines, or even to admit that the lines exist?

 Huck Finn’s racial dynamics will be irrelevant when such questions no
longer exist.  Twain’s book is not a classic because someone has told us it
belongs in the canon.

Twain’s book is a classic because he takes the contradictions that tear at
the very heart of the American soul--and race is only one of them--loads
them in a cannon he called Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and blasts them
into the face of the unsuspecting reader.  This book is important because
even after over 100 years, it still hurts, and it still hurts so much that
we have to laugh.

Twain once said there was no humor in heaven; God knows we need it here.

Should it be taught in high schools?  That depends on the teacher.  My
daughter’s eleventh grade teacher paired Huck Finn with Henry James’s The
Americans, splitting the novels up between the students.  They read this
pair of books for 3--count’em, 3!!!!--weeks, five days a week in class, and
NEVER mentioned race, class, or what it meant to be an American.  NEVER.

My daughter didn’t tell me about it at the time, because she was afraid that
I would not be, ahem, shall we say, diplomatic?

Still, I’d like to have been a fly on the wall.  How my daughter’s teacher
could manage such a feat is completely beyond my comprehension.  She
deserves some kind of medal for her sheer control of the classroom, her
impressive ability to squelch questions and conversation--perhaps a medal
with General Funston’s picture on it.  They didn't give her the medal, but
the school made her the director of curriculum studies the next year.  On
the upside, at least it removed her from the classroom . . . .

But is the novel relevant, and relevant to a mixed race/class classroom?  I’
d answer with a resounding yes, on many levels, not just race.  Here are a
few that I see:

Clemens and Huck saw more violence and death in their young lives than many
of us in our suburban insulation will see in our lifetime, television and
movies notwithstanding.  Many of the students in our schools face this kind
of fear and violence everyday.   I read about shootings in certain
neighborhoods here on a weekly basis, sometimes more often.  Kids from those
neighborhoods go to school with my kids.

These kids need to know that Sam Clemens wrote his way out of hell, over and
over again.

Americans maintain illusions about equal opportunity. Yet the poor are
usually silenced, or silent, too tired from the struggle to survive to raise
a voice.  We as Americans tend to conflate race and class, and much has been
written about the black middle class and its struggles for recognition and
identity.  The white poor, with the exception of a smattering of novelists
and poets here and there, still tends to be a silent and ignored presence.

Huck gives them voice, and voices the anguish of their position, their need
to align themselves with those in power rather than those with whom they
might share genuine common ground.

What else does the novel speak for, to, about?  Child abuse, homelessness,
fear, exposing attractive bullies who taunt others for their ignorance,
build themselves up by tearing others down.  It speaks of broken families,
the struggle for connection, the struggle to stand up against what society
tells you is right.  And of course race.  America is still torn at the heart
by these questions and dilemmas.

In an election year wherein bigotry, hypocrisy and social irresponsibility
were recast as “morality” and “values,” it is damned straight that the novel
is still relevant, contentious, combative, and in your face.  As it should
be.  As it must be.

As to teaching it, I try to start with a historical approach to the word
“nigger.”  The word was recognized as a “fighting word” as early as the
1830s, in many parts of the country.  Clemens grew up in a place where the
word was used constantly and with impunity.  By the time he wrote Huck,
though, he knew it was “fighting words.”

He also knew that the genteel changing of the term to something less
“offensive” left all of the underlying prejudice intact.  Just because
people speak nicely doesn’t mean their sentiments match.  Look at what fun
our country's history had with "coon," "darky," and "Jim Crow" in the
nineteenth century and beyond--Lord knows it wasn't "nigger," so it was
okay, right; it wasn't prejudice, right, just a recognition of humorous
differences, right?  Twain's use of the word puts the underlying prejudice
in your face and makes you confront the societal presence in its full

And it is a social presence still with us, in spite of the relative
cleanliness of tongue.

But I would not have students read passages aloud that contain the word.  It
still hurts, and to hear it coming from someone when you fear they might
actually mean it somewhere deep inside would be devastating.  To say the
word, with an awareness of the pain it causes, is painful in itself.  To say
the word if deep down you share the sentiments might be satisfying or
horrifying.  To examine the ugliness of the prejudice that lies beneath the
word and ask where you yourself stand can be life-changing.

I’ve used tapes--Recorded Books, Inc. has a good recording--which removes
the word to a mechanical device, and then as a class, talked a lot about the
impact of the passage, including the use of the word, and how the passage
would be changed if a less offensive word was used.

Finally, I’d also wonder if Ms. Viall talked privately to the student.  Did
she ask if the discussion that she thought had gone well was the source of
his discomfort?  Did she ask if he’d previously read the book, or known
someone who had, who told him it was racist?   Did she find out specifically
what his pain and concerns were and where they arose from?    Finding out
what went wrong would be the first step.

I apologize for a long posting; a huge stack of essays I need to grade is
glaring at me.  Thanks for your patience, but if I can’t rant about
Huckleberry Finn to fellow Twainiacs, who can I talk to??

Sharon McCoy