The US Department of Education is taking very seriously a complaint
against Tempe (Arizona) high schools for teaching "The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn." I fear that the feds might ban this novel from
all public schools.
I first learned about this case in late April, when pickets spent a
week demonstrating against the Tempe Union High School District.
One sign said, "Mark Twain was racist." Among the demonstrators was
the head of the Arizona NAACP. (See the Arizona Republic, April 23,
1996, page B1.)
The picketers then filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights
of the US Department of Education. A team from the Office studied
the complaint and recommended an investigation, which is being
carried out by Ramon Villarreal and David Dunbar. (See the Arizona
Republic, July 3, 1996, Community Section, page 4.)
To my mind, the charge is unfair. Mark Twain was remarkable because
although he was a son of slave owners he realized that slavery was wrong.
Turning his back on much of what he had learned as a boy in Missouri,
he vocally condemned racial injustice in America and the European
colonies in Africa.
He also donated money for African American education. He funded
scholarships at Lincoln University. He supported Warner Thornton
McGuinn through Yale Law School. He financed study in Paris for
artist Charles Ethan Porter.
In "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" he dramatized his own moral
struggle. It took Mark Twain years to figure out that slavery was
wrong, but he has Huck figure it out in a raft trip of a couple weeks.
Mark Twain had to talk to many whites and blacks away from Missouri to
figure out that slavery was wrong, but he has Huck learn it from Jim
on the raft. Also, Huck is himself a runaway who is seeing Missouri
society from a new perspective.
"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain
called Huckleberry Finn." Educators took this statement seriously
during the 1940s and '50s, and I believe that their work helped
prepare America for the Civil Rights Movement. Even when I began
eleventh grade in 1966 in Wisconsin, this is how American literature
was still taught.
The irony is that, if Mark Twain had not written "The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn," there might not be an Office of Civil Rights
with the power to ban this novel.
The Tempe Union High School District has consulted with experts here
at Arizona State University to try to understand what has gone
wrong. And they have met with the protesters to try to reach a
compromise. But the anti-Twain forces seem determined to totally
remove "Huckleberry Finn" from the schools.
Besides the two articles I mentioned above, there were related pieces
on January 29 and May 27. I don't know their page numbers because I
found them on Arizona Newspapers On-Line, which does not give page