Thursday, April 26, 2012

On Teaching Huckleberry Finn

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since. (Ernest Hemingway)

I just finished teaching Huckleberry Finn. As part of our time studying Huckleberry Finn, my class watched "Born to Trouble," a PBS documentary produced in 2000 about the controversy involved in teaching Huckleberry Finn. I was particularly struck this time around by something Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua asks: "When did we decide that learning has to be painless?" When I first encountered Huck and Jim as a high school student, I felt offended every time I saw the word "nigger." I felt personally scarred. To be honest, I don't remember what, if anything, my teacher did to address the presence of the n-word in the book we were reading. I do know that when I started teaching Huck Finn three years ago I decided that the first thing I needed to do was tell my students what my experience was as a high-school reader of the text. Painful, yes. And in some ways it still is. The word hasn't lost its force. But Chadwick-Joshua and many of the other scholars who speak in the documentary argue that banning or bowdlerizing Huck Finn means taking one of its primary lessons away, and I'm right with them. The pain of seeing the n-word 218 times forces us to examine the power of words.

In his introduction to a recent edition of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that does away with the n-word, Alan Gribben suggests that learning shouldn't in fact be painful:
I believe that a significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers will welcome the option of an edition of Twain’s fused novels that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol. Despite occasional efforts of rap and hip hop musicians to appropriate the term, and well-meaning but usually futile (from my own experience) endeavors by classroom teachers to inoculate their students against it by using Huckleberry Finn as a springboard to discuss its etymology and cultural history, the n-word remains inarguably the most inflammatory word in the English language.
I disagree with Gribben that the purpose of discussing the n-word is to "inoculate students against it." We start off each term's exploration of Huck Finn with a 70 minute discussion of the n-word. Only a few minutes of that conversation are devoted to its etymology. The purpose of discussing the n-word is to bring to the surface the pain, awkwardness, discomfort, and tension that encountering the word creates in both my students and me. I asked this year's students to describe how they felt during our initial n-word conversation. They mentioned feeling antsy, having a sense of hesitation, fear, or caution; many of the white students said that they noticed their whiteness more and felt separated or ashamed.  I asked whether there were any positive feelings about the conversation and they came up with the following words: insightful, important, boundary-pushing, good for learning, revealing, enlightening, necessary.

We have to consider such conversations to be mere starting points for further discussion, of course—after all, the purpose of education isn't to make us comfortable or complacent, but rather to encourage us to think for ourselves and question the world. What better way to do so than by directly confronting what Gribben rightly calls "the most inflammatory word in the English language"? Our lives are complex and difficult—avoiding the pain language evokes doesn't help us get better at contending with offensive, complex language (and avoiding the n-word while reading Huck Finn doesn't mean that you'll avoid seeing it rear its ugly head elsewhere: witness the reaction to last night's Washington Capitals win, for example). 

In addition to our n-word discussion this year, we spent a day talking about the new edition and whether it would have been a preferable text to read. In preparation for that discussion, we read Toni Morrison's introduction [PDF]  to Huck Finn from 1996, Gribben's introduction to this new edition, and a brief piece from Shelley Fisher Fishkin on the new edition. We also watched a brief segment featuring Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC's Countdown.The consensus among the class was that the book should be read as is, even in high schools, though it must be done with time to talk about the n-word. My students brought up the example that Gribben cites below as one instance in which "slave" is an insufficient replacement for "nigger":
The synonym “slave” expresses the cultural racism that Twain sought to convey, as in Huck Finn’s report to Aunt Sally Phelps in Chapter 32 that a steamboat explosion had “killed a slave,” to which she responds heartlessly, “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”
As my students pointed out, the distinction here is between a "nigger" and a "person," not between someone who has been enslaved and a free person. But we could see how Gribben might be able to finesse his point by saying that the distinction between "slave" and "people" is exactly the same distinction. But in another passage, his replacement of the n-word with "slave" shifts the tone and meaning of the passage:
 "Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio -- a mulatter, most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain't a man in that town that's got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane -- the awfulest old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p'fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain't the wust. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote agin. Them's the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me -- I'll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger -- why, he wouldn't a give me the road if I hadn't shoved him out o' the way. I says to the people, why ain't this nigger put up at auction and sold? -- that's what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn't be sold till he'd been in the State six months, and he hadn't been there that long yet. There, now -- that's a specimen. They call that a govment that can't sell a free nigger till he's been in the State six months. Here's a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet's got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger...
Pap Finn's rant from Chapter 6 is crucial to our understanding of Pap as a hypocritical, racist, unsympathetic character. Perhaps we cheer a little when we find out at the end of the novel that he is dead. Perhaps not. Either way, it is clear that Twain knows exactly what kind of person his readers will understand Pap to be. Consider this brief excerpt from the passage above if we replace "nigger" with "slave":
Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was 'lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn't too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they'd let that slave vote, I drawed out. I says I'll never vote agin. Them's the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me -- I'll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that slave -- why, he wouldn't a give me the road if I hadn't shoved him out o' the way. I says to the people, why ain't this slave put up at auction and sold?
The passage loses its force entirely; indeed, it doesn't make any sense, because Pap is explicitly talking about a black person who is not, in fact, a slave.

A further complication to Gribben's argument is the subtlety of Huck's development in the novel. Huck is a flawed protagonist—he grows and learns over the course of the novel, but he is infuriatingly silent in many places (as Toni Morrison has pointed out). Many of the 218 uses of the n-word in the novel come from Huck's mouth (cf. Louie C.K. on Huck). But in two places Huck does not refer to Jim as a "nigger," and those two places stand out even more because they are so unusual.

The first is when Jim stays to watch over the injured Tom Sawyer at the end of the novel, after Jim has been "freed" by Tom and Huck. Because of his willingness to risk his freedom for Tom's sake, Huck declares that he "knowed [Jim] was white inside" (365). For Huck, this is progress, though such a compliment wouldn't (and shouldn't!) be acceptable these days.

The second, and more poignant, moment comes when Huck hears the doctor's account of Jim's behavior while the two of them tended to Tom's wounds. The doctor's speech has been freely peppered with the n-word, even though he is arguing that the townsfolk should treat Jim kindly—by my count, "nigger" appears 10 times in the speech. Huck feels relieved by the doctor's speech, and tells us that he "thought [Jim] had a good heart in him and was a good man the first time I see him" (378). This is the only moment in the novel in which Huck refers to Jim as a man. Would the effect of this exception be so potent if Jim had been referred to as a "slave" throughout the novel? I doubt it. Our eyes can slide over the word slave. But "nigger" jumps off the page and sears our consciousness, as does its absence in this instance.

I wish I could say that teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is always satisfying—in many ways, it is an incredibly frustrating book because Huck is flawed. While he grows to realize that Jim is a good human being (as we readers have known all along), he doesn't extend that understanding to all black folks. In fact, he forgets about Jim's humanity and goes along (albeit grudgingly) with Tom's plans for much of the last several chapters. Yet a flawed protagonist is in many ways a better foil for our smug sense of superiority as modern-day readers. We, too, would do well to examine our assumptions about how we judge and classify others. Do we, like Huck, make exemptions for individuals? Or do we, like Jim, let our better impulses rule even if it means risking our own self-interest?

[Note: I began writing this blog post about three days before the twins made their appearance in January 2011; at the time, all sorts of media were carrying the story of Gribben's new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I think this piece has probably taken longer to finish than any other piece of writing I have ever done, with the exception perhaps of my Master's thesis. Maybe.]