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Taylor Roberts <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 13 Jul 1995 00:05:29 EDT
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     [This is the second of three thought-provoking messages sent to me by
     Wesley Britton, and posted to the Mark Twain Forum on his behalf.
     Although Wesley does not yet have access to e-mail, discussion and
     replies concerning these postings are welcomed at
     <[log in to unmask]>; Wesley receives the Forum's log files
     periodically and follows the discussion here.  If you want to send a
     private or urgent reply to Wesley, though, you should direct it to his
     snail-mail address at the end of this message.  --Taylor Roberts]

On Huck & Race
by Wesley Britton

Recently, I had a chance to review many of your collective comments on Huck
Finn and race, a never-healing wound for general readers and literature
scholars alike.  I thought I'd share the following story with you after
quickly noting that, for those of you interested in Hawthorne and race, you
might check out my "The Puritan Past and Black Gothic: Toni Morrison's
_Beloved_ in Light of _House of the 7 Gables_."  It will be published in
the _Nathanial Hawthorne Review_ later this year.

Back to Huck.  Three falls ago, I taught HF at Paul Quinn College, an all-
black school in Dallas, Texas.  I learned the previous semester that
African-American students take portrayals of their ancestors seriously and
personally.  I learned black students turned off to stories such as
Thorpe's "Big Bear of Arkansas" because the "N" word appears and, for black
students, the humor, flavor, and taste of the story evaporated after the
word is used.

When time came to teach Huck, I asked many questions of my black
colleagues: should I teach the book at this school?  What happens if the
book sparks up controversy?  Only the year before, a local Plano preacher
lead a campaign to ban Huck from the town's schools, and a lively local
debate arose.  But that was in a mixed environment--this was something

I was told to teach the book but to be sensitive to the reactions of a
potentially turbulent class.  As it happened, I drew a good hand; the class
discussions from day one were freewheeling and thought-provoking.  It
helped ease tensions, I noted, to point out Huck's age and foibles, his
gutter upbringing and vernacular, and his growth and bonding with Jim.  I
set the stage by previewing the novel, stating the book is about a racist
who must encounter this racism, and we will see the changes as they occur
in him.  By forecasting each stage of Huck's development, the students had
a roadmap to follow which, in a sense, gave them something to look forward
to (at least until chapter XXXI).

But the proof of the pudding came on the last day.  I came to class and
said, "Today, I am Ted Koppel and this is Nightline.  You are the panel of
experts, having just completed a study of Huck Finn.  As you know, recently
there has been a local controversy regarding this book. I put it to you--
should Huck Finn be banned from schools?"  I sat down and silently listened
as the discussion unfolded.

Three groups of thought quickly formed.  One group asserted the book
shouldn't be banned, but shouldn't be taught earlier than perhaps the fifth
or sixth grade, and even then, with much preparation.  Another group said
the book shouldn't be banned from any level, that black people "have to
deal with slavery times, we can't hide from the past."  One of these
students said her father thought the class should have organized a protest
against THAT book being taught at Paul Quinn, but she replied "There's more
to it than that.  You have to get past instinctive revulsion.  It takes

A third group thought the book was disgusting and should be thrown away.
Part of the reason, which lead to much debate with group two, was that they
were tired of hearing about "slavery times."  "If you don't have something
positive to say," one girl commented, "don't say it."  Others clearly felt
Jim's dialect was exaggerated, "No one ever spoke that way."

The discussion ended when one girl, who didn't seem to want to choose a
position, commented:  "You know, back in grade school, I was supposed to
read this book but my father took it out of my hands and threw it in the
closet.  He said it was trash and I wasn't to read it.  I didn't read it
until now."  She held up her copy.  "This is the same book, out of the
closet."  The class sat quietly, almost reverently.  "So what do you
think?" I asked.

She shook her head and asked "Is it worth all the fuss?"  We all left with
private answers to that question.

I subsequently wished I had taught Charles Chestnutt's "Goofered Grapevine"
before teaching Huck.  The same class found a new perspective when they
discovered  black authors too used both the "N" word and the thick dialect.
They could more readily enjoy the comic humor knowing who the author was.
I suspect that if we'd encountered these issues through the Chestnutt story
first, some of the sting might have been taken out of Huck.

Wesley Britton
Sherman, TX