Let’s jump right into the current discourse.
I am currently a teacher of ESL students, and the current (as of this writting) global pandemic afforded me the opportunity to teach a curriculum that was slightly different from the usual. I decided to do American literature. Before I oblige anything to my students, I oblige myself to read through it. I thought I was going to do Mark Twain for one of the two month sessions. Tom Sawyer is a bit too childish, so I elected Adventures of Huckleberry Finn instead. And then, I decided against it. The use of the N word in these novels is just a discourse I do not want to have with my students.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn follows the titular character as he escapes from society, specifically the society that is being obliged to him after the change in his fortune at the end of Tom Sawyer. Rules and obligations are being put upon him, and Finn simply doesn’t care. He finds himself on a raft with an escaped slave named Jim, and a strong friendship between the two emerges.
It is an excellent novel. There are whole sections of Jim and Finn just discussing the world as they understand it that are just delightful, and really show how the pair complete the gaps in knowledge the other has. It’s funny to read what kind of things the one believes that the other won’t. Later, when the duo are joined by two grifters, we see how Finn has a true and real respect for Jim, the kind of brotherly love that is actually rare, and that the two grifters do not have for each other. There is something of a happy ending here where Jim is freed officially, and Huck considers leaving society once again.
But the book is full with the N word. And that makes it difficult for modern readers. Some people have elected to opt for a ‘unacceptable in any circumstance’ position on the word, while others consdier that there is a historical context and use to the word wherein the word was not offensive. But it is hard to pretend that we can look at the word with 200 year old lenses. The world has changed, and so has this word. We cannot pretend otherwise.
It’s strange. I have an obligation to educate my students to the best of my ability. Part of me feels like ignoring this work is doing them a diservice. Warts and all, this story does help people understand the history of the anti-slavery movement of America’s past. But I also have an obligation to my school to not stir the pot as much as I can. I have watched my students in the past have… problematic opinions on race. I am not sure I made the correct choice here, but I it is the one I am going with.
2 thoughts on “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain”
Sounds like there is no getting around the discussion about the use of this word. But isn’t that a great opportunity to talk about historical contexts` and whether old books still deserve to be read?
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It’s going to depend. Maybe if this had happened in a face to face class and not an online pandemic class, I would have known my students well enough to have the confidence to do it