Here’s Why Banning ‘Huck Finn’ Over The N-Word Sends The Wrong Message
The N-word shows up 219 times in Mark Twain’s classic 1885 tale of childhood adventure “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which tracks Huck’s flight from his drunken, abusive dad and journey down the Mississippi River with an escaped slave name Jim.
Over the years a number of schools have struggled with keeping the book in their curriculum, citing the offensive nature of the language, which scholars argue Twain used exactly because he wanted to drive home a point about slavery, but also because he was trying to be true to the language of the day. It was first banned just two years after its release, and it remains controversial. In 2011 the book was even revised, when a professor at the University of Virginia released a version that replaced the offending word with “slave.”
The latest to draw that line is the Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, Philadelphia, which removed the book from its curriculum after a group of students reportedly said it made them uncomfortable. A meeting with the students and faculty last week ended with the faculty deciding to drop the book from the 11th grade American literature class, principal Art Hall wrote in a letter to parents.
“We have all come to the conclusion that the community costs of reading this book in 11th grade outweigh the literary benefits,” Hall wrote. The Quaker school adheres to a philosophy of “peaceful resolution of conflicts, seeking truth, and collaboration,” which “are key aspects of a Friends’ Central education,” according to the school website.
@tldr My school just banned Huck Finn, I’d love if you could make a sort of sequel to your safe spaces video https://t.co/Dy2FcvtHNi
— Neil Goldader (@avatarneil) December 13, 2015
Antonio Aiello, editorial director at the New York-based literary association the PEN American Center told MTV News, “When this book originally came out it was controversial because it was the story of a white boy who was friends with and went on a journey with a slave, a black man.” At that time, it was both unheard of and against all norms of social society to tell that type of story, which, in turn, made “Finn” an important piece of social commentary on American culture at the time. In the years since, it has often landed on the annual list of books most frequently banned in classrooms.
Aiello, who also works on PEN’s Banned Books Week project (and who noted that he does not have first-hand knowledge of why the Friends school pulled the book) said what’s lost when schools take these actions because of discomfort with the N-word is the larger message to students. “Because of the bigotry and racism going on in the presidential campaign, people are more aware of racism in a way they haven’t been before, but there’s also movements to whitewash that history and not seriously address the ongoing institutional racism in America, ” he said.
At this point in time, according to Aiello, discussing that discomfort and facing that institutional racism is what students need to do the most. “They need to be made uncomfortable,” he said. “Instead of taking this as a teachable moment to talk about where words come from and what they mean… it’s shocking that teachers wouldn’t take that opportunity. History is not going to go away.”
The book will reportedly remain in the school’s library and “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” will be taught in the 11th grade class in its stead. A spokesperson for the school could not be reached for comment at press time.
gil kaufman @mtvgil