Headlines raged when a Virginia school recently “banned” Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird due to racial slurs. These classic books, written to help fight racism, contain language that is offensive to modern sensibilities. No matter what Mark Twain and Harper Lee intended with these novels, the very presence of racial terms makes the books too uncomfortable for certain delicate readers.
I live in a city that is 93% white, and I have experience teaching literature in a classroom where a single student might be the only minority. Perhaps what I have seen after years of being in this environment might provide new insights to the conversation.
Teenagers can be goofy and awkward, but from what I’ve seen, they are rarely oversensitive. Most of them survive adolescence by trading coarse humor every day. They make fun of their bodies, their body language, their emotions, their grades. In all of this, they tend to give one another quite a bit of room to say stupid, even offensive things.
Day in and day out, they let the vast majority of what is said to them roll off. Almost never do they run to authority figures with minor offenses, complaining about sexism, racism, or hurt feelings of any sort.
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The media tends to love the idea of a PC school culture that reacts wildly to every possible offense, but in real life, I haven’t seen this problem very often. Teenagers pop off at the mouth, laugh, deliver a zinger in return, dust the dirt off their knees, and move on.
So when I say that studying Huckleberry Finn can be uniquely awkward for classroom study, I don’t say that lightly.
I do not think this book should be removed from a high school curriculum. No other book captures this part of American history like Huck Finn does. It’s also a literary masterpiece. However, there are several reasons this book can be tough for classroom discussion. I’m going to explain some of those reasons below, hoping that the experience of an actual teacher will provide a little more empathy for this national conversation.
- Although Jim (the African American, runaway slave) is kind and good, he is also superstitious and ignorant. Yes, Huck’s bum of a father is equally superstitious and ignorant. Twain hit both races hard in his writing. Yet while we find white characters who are intelligent, responsible, and powerful to balance Huck’s father, the same balance isn’t provided for Jim in this novel. We never encounter an African American doctor, sheriff, or judge.
Was this imbalance historically accurate? Sure. This wasn’t a period in the American South in which African Americans had an opportunity to achieve positions of dignity and influence. However, I can see why African American students would read this book and feel frustrated that the most admirable black character in the book is still a childish stereotype.
This is where it gets tricky, because not every book or poem needs to provide balance. I don’t expect Thomas Hardy to provide a fierce feminist character in Tess of the D’Ubervilles. I don’t expect Robert Herrick to encourage women to get a solid college education in “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time” to counteract his sexual appeal. If we start to demand moral perfection of every work of literature, we will forfeit too much of our canon.
But the response of a reader completes a work of art, so it is part of academic evaluation to acknowledge that different works of literature impact different demographics of a class differently. Some works hit boys harder than girls. Some works beautiful kids harder than the less attractive. Some hit the intelligent students differently than those who struggle.
Writing is inherently evocative. It stirs up hard questions and challenges us to get outside of our comfort zone. So admitting the emotional impact of a book’s ability to single out certain students is simple wisdom. Being sensitive about this sort of impact is civility.
- Huck Finn doesn’t just use the n-word once or twice but repeatedly throughout. If it takes three or four weeks to work through this novel, as passages are read aloud, black students might hear their white peers say “n***ger” over and over again. This experience can hurt.
And the black kids aren’t the only ones squirming here. This is an ugly word that can be difficult for white kids to read, too. Several times I’ve just seen the whole room grow quiet while trying to teach Huck Finn. There’s an awkward heaviness that settles, because a class that felt unified a month before now feels like it is divided. Nobody knows quite what to say. Someone tries to crack a joke, but humor doesn’t fix it.
It’s not hypersensitivity to admit the gravity of such a dynamic. It’s honest. It’s human.
- You or I might not feel the pinch of a book like Huck Finn, but that doesn’t mean a pinch is nonexistent. I understand that certain people reading this article won’t care about the feelings of strangers at all. Some of those readers have never felt isolated, so they won’t have the imagination or empathy to understand what it’s like to feel singled out.
Others were so damaged as kids that they never learned to care about the emotions of others. Maybe they were the poor or dirty white kids. Maybe they were the one who got bad grades. Maybe they were the kids damaged by teasing. Damaged people who learned that their feelings didn’t matter to anybody tend to lash out and dismiss other experiences besides their own. We get beat up long enough, and we learn to punch. (This is why explosive internet comments don’t bother me much. I know there’s a hurt little kid still trapped inside most roaring cyber bullies.)
But for those of you who still have your hearts open and in tact, take a minute to get inside another dynamic.
Imagine being the only poor, white kid with divorced parents in a school where everybody else is rich. You’re from Georgia, but your mom moved to a city in Pennsylvania. You have a southern drawl, and you are the only kid living in a trailer. Every single other person in that room is in the suburbs. You wear camo. They wear khakis.
Your class is reading a novel about “trailer trash,” and you know that everybody around you is thinking about you every time that phrase hits. Either they start calling you “trailer trash,” in the halls, trying to be funny, or they don’t say anything. The silence is worse. The “we vs. they” that has always existed under the surface is now in blaring in everybody’s faces, every day, during third period.
Have some of you lived through this kind of thing? Sure.
Did it make you stronger? I hope so.
Is this kind of experience part of growing up? Probably.
But if the squeeze of this sort of challenge helped make you who you are, that growth should turn you into a mentor instead of a critic. The pinch of your past should make you more empathetic. It should drive you to listen to and encourage others who are now in the middle of awkward, painful times. You might have survived your trouble, but there are still teenagers out there trying to figure out how to feel and what to do.
This example isn’t a perfect fit, because being African American isn’t like being a poor, white kid. I don’t mean to imply that it is. But I do want to find some sort of story that could help you see that the people who are feeling troubled by this sort of situation are real people who go home every night carrying what they’ve heard.
The PC culture has become way too extreme, flying off the deep end with hair-trigger hypersensitivity, so it’s tempting for conservatives to react in the opposite direction. I can see why folks want it to be okay to say everything all the time to all people.
But the truth is, words are powerful. They have started wars and ended wars. They have started countries and ended kingdoms. The power of words has led dictators to burn books and to ban them truly (not just remove them from a high school curriculum map—which is not at all the same as banning).
The fact that such an argument about Huck Finn exists proves that words are more than words. Words are containers for love, hate, life, and death. Words were used by God to bring the world into being, and at a single word from Him, all could cease to exist. God says that at the end of our lives, we will be held accountable for every rash word spoken, so even though we live in the age of easy, impulse rants, we are naive to act like words have no weight. Every comment we make is held by God. Many comments we make are held by humans who bear His image.
So while is wrong to ban books, and while I don’t think we should remove Twain from our high schools, I do think this conversation needs to be had with respect for our fellow citizens. Sweeping, dismissive comments about a PC culture and hypersensitivity are understandable, because we are tired of having to tiptoe through life. But in reality, our impatient rants accomplish little more than personal catharsis.
It takes far more intelligence and character to do the hard work of balancing love alongside truth, compassion alongside historicity. Once we learn to engage in this manner, we can continue the good work Twain was trying to accomplish when he wrote Huck Finn in the first place.