Back in 1990, 1991, I taught Huck at an all African-American college in Dallas, TX. I wasn't certain this would fly, but the new English Chair said to do what I thought was right. So, with considerable thought, I led up to Huck by teaching Frederick Douglass and then Charles Chesnutt's "The Goofered Grapevine," the latter specifically to discuss black writers using the N word. This allowed me to come at the subject by way of a black author before hearing it in the words of Twain.
As it happened, this unit coincided with a controversy at a nearby school district where a parent was spearheading a drive to dump Huck from the school. Racial tensions were rather high as the Rodney King riots had happened just a few months before. So the very hot issue was in the air, to put it mildly. So, for me, the most memorable moments occurred on the final day of talking about Huck.
I asked the class to pretend we were on "Nightline" and that Ted Koppel was asking them about reading Huck in light of the current discussions. How did they feel about a class of black students reading the book? The responses ran the gamut-1/3 of the class decided the book should be taught at a higher grade level, but not to classes 7th grade or lower. About 1/3 thought the book should be banned, period. (I learned later, judging from their exams, some of these folks had simply refused to read it in the first place.) Another third said the book should not be banned. One of these girls told the class that her father had not allowed her to read it in high school, had thrown the book in the closet calling it trash. "This is that book," she said, holding up the book. That was rather a poignant moment for everyone.
I learned several things in that class and others to follow. The N word was almost secondary to the shame and embarrassment of talking about "slavery times." Several students complained both Twain and Chesnutt were exaggerating black speech as they did not like the idea slaves spoke in non-standard dialects. Those who championed the book were elated when they discovered Jim was the hero of the story and listed off the attributes that endeared him to them. But, over and over, in this class and others, the core of student pain was slavery times, and I suspect this will be ever thus.
A few weeks after this unit, I was fired by the college, the VP citing the teaching of Huck as the core reason. Would things have turned out differently had I taught an expurgated version? I doubt it. Intelligent students would know a euphemism is just a euphemism-but a clear distinction seemed plain. A black writer dealing with racism has credibility; a white writer, any white writer, could not touch the 3rd rail.
Over the years, the N word has popped up when I least expected it. I recall teaching "The Big Bear of Arkansas" at a different college when a black student told me he was enjoying the story until the word was uttered by one character, and then he lost interest in the story. Just one utterance, the story was dead. So should the word be removed? Here, there, and everywhere?
Capitulating to those who object to offensive language, imagery of witchcraft etc. etc. has already cost us much. When a colleague of mine used an M&M song in a class on, of all things, Banned Books, one student complained about being offended and her parents ran a campaign to get my friend fired, or at least, punished in some way. The college president wanted to remove him from teaching honor classes as an appeasement until the faculty revolted. A teapot tempest, perhaps, but the point is academic freedom and Freedom of Speech are always under assault. The bastardized HF surely invites those objecting to other texts to propose similar guttings in future editions.
Dr. Wesley Britton
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