Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a book every day?

A post about Huckleberry Finn. Contains spoilers for Inglorious Basterds.

AT THE END of Inglorious Basterds, Hitler and Goebbels are gunned down by Jewish-American soldiers in a burning theater.

I loved it in a way I wonder if a non-Jewish person can get.

MINE IS THE third post-holocaust generation, and those who raised us took Never forget seriously. I grew up with a Time-Life series that had pictures like these in it, and I was taught—rightly—that It can’t happen here is always a lie. Of course it can. It can happen anywhere. Grow up.

Jews of my generation are expected to remember, and for those raised more Orthodox than I was, we’re also expected to repopulate. We tend to stand against intolerance and for civil rights. Those black-and-white photographs are familiar to Jewish people my age, and if you look again at that word, familiar, and see the word family in it, you might understand what I really mean. Those are my people, and the only reason I’m not one of those grainy horrible stacked bodies is the random fact that I was born in 1966 in Los Angeles.

If we forget, it will happen here. Not just can.

I loved the end of Inglorious Basterds. It delivered bloody, righteous, aggressive, self-sacrificing victory to the precise location in my soul where, for my whole life, there’s been only generations-removed helplessness and horror.

It was things set right.

I PARTICIPATED IN a group support forum a few years ago, and one of the other participants got very angry with me about my superior attitude and unleashed a tirade in belittling, anti-Semitic language. I don’t remember it very well, but there was stuff along the lines of “little jewboy.” The forum moderator took it down despite my expressing my wish for it to stay up so people could draw their own conclusions.

After it was removed, no one could. And there was nothing for a conversation to form around. So everyone moved on. When you cave to either mob demand or personal convenience and remove “offensive” language, you protect the status quo.

“OFFENSIVE” IS IN quotes there because as popularly used, it’s a meaningless word. “I am offended” is meaningful, and if think I was in the wrong—or if I care about you enough to put aside that I don’t think I was in the wrong—I’ll do whatever I can to make it right.

“So-and-so offended me,” while a little less clear, is still meaningful enough for two people to come to an understanding.

But “That word is offensive?” That’s not even possible. Words have no dog in this fight.

Can we use our brains once in a while instead of our adrenal glands? Can we communicate instead of hoisting catchphrases like banners so our mob can rally and shout down that other mob? Can we learn to listen to things that offend us instead of believing that righteousness is sufficient reason to silence the wrong-speaker?

No? Well, I thought I’d ask.

REMOVING THE N-WORD from Huckleberry Finn is like replacing those holocaust photos with the last reel of Inglorious Basterds.

That ending sure does make me feel good, and after all, isn’t that the most important thing? Not feeling bad? Not feeling like a victim? Being able to put aside a history of oppression? Not having to learn empathy and critical thinking and examine my own assumptions about what constitutes “offense?”

What isn’t important, apparently, is this:


Do we care?

Before anyone can change for the positive—me, you, the human species, anyone—we have to clearly see what needs changing. (Changing for the negative doesn’t require this, and is therefore much easier.) You can’t solve a problem without knowing what the problem is.

Whitewash opposes that clear vision; we even use the word “unvarnished” when we mean to say reality, truth, the guts to face ourselves. We admire those who get past their egos and improve. The one thing such a person can’t do, if he’s to sustain our admiration, reduce the world’s suffering, and all that, is Photoshop the bong out of the Christmas photo and say “What difference does it make? We all know it was there.”

Just do the work, and then take another picture without the bong next year. Don’t weasel.

I don’t want tomorrow’s history books to say Jews gunned down Hitler in a burning theater, thus averting millions of horrible deaths; and I don’t want today’s history books—because a novel from the past is not just a novel, but also a historical artifact—to say nobody used that word, in 1876, along the Mississippi.

When you remove “offensive” language, you protect the status quo. Let people draw their own conclusions. Let some be offended; nobody ever died of offense. But people have died, and suffered terribly, and in great numbers, of crimes against humanity, perpetrated to the melody of denigrating, dehumanizing language.


Leave the words in, and don’t collaborate with whitewashers. Never forget, never forgive.

And never, ever think comfort will get you farther than truth.



Filed under Books, Film, Race

23 responses to “Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a book every day?

  1. I adore this.

    Your last bit reminded me of this quote that William Sloane Coffin used to use as a benediction: “The world is too dangerous for anything but the truth, and too small for anything but love.”

    And let me hasten to add that for Coffin, love was anything but saccharine.

  2. Gordon Atkinson

    Amen. Horrified – HORRIFIED – when I read they were going to change Twain’s words.

    Do you remember the story, a few years ago, about an English teacher who was reprimanded for using the word niggardly in class? If not you can probably guess at the circumstances and reasons.

  3. Nigel Greene

    Huck Finn didn’t really happen that way. It is not a news account. It is not historical fact. It is fiction. Mark Twain, and his use of the N word, is not some unassailable perfection that should cause one should call into question the gravitas, backbone or intellectual honesty of those who take offense to his language. I take offense to its use. The word is demeaning, intended to insult and injure, and adds NOTHING to the quality of my life or my appreciation for the reality of racism in this country. Trust me – I appreciate it.

    That being said, I am not asking that the N-word be removed from Twain’s text. If that is what he wrote, that is what he wrote. But don’t expect me to read and accept that which offends me just because the same society that created the word “nigger” and the social system that made a “nigger” a despicable thing and a word of power, thinks I should read it and not complain. Because the real “whitewash” is to “blacken” and “paint with a tar brush” the motive and response of those who take offense to language that confuses “fair” with just and offense with honesty.

    Fuck Mark Twain, Huck Finn and the raft they floated in on. I have other things to do, and books to read, in my short time on this mortal coil.

    • I don’t see much I disagree with here, if anything. I do see two places that I think could benefit from more conversation.

      One is that I’m pretty sure I’m missing the “real whitewash” point.

      The other is that I don’t think the content of a book needs to be a news account in order that its existence be treated as the existence of a historical document. When I extend “It didn’t happen that way” to include the book, I mean “[The writing of this book] didn’t happen that way.” I don’t mean I think the events depicted in it actually happened. (And I’m certainly not taking the position that the book is so artistically perfect that mere mortals can only sully it.)

      As you said, and I agree with, why should you read and accept that which offends you? I don’t think not wanting to read something is intellectually dishonest. Why stab yourself in the eye when you can just put the stick down instead? But I do think altering historical documents to make them reflect a different world than existed is intellectually dishonest, and I also think there’s something basically wrong with taking an anti-slavery book, written by one of the smartest and most ardent anti-slavery voices of his time, to task because the characters in it use the language they actually used then.

      I can become more polarized on this than I really feel, just out of needing to stake out my part of a disagreement, so let me clarify this: I don’t feel anything I’ve said negated anything you said. To me, with the personality I have, the experience I have, and the needs I have, truth and accuracy are simply a more important issue than social or personal harmony. I don’t begrudge anyone their own more important issues, and I don’t think the incompatible viewpoints of rational people are mutually exclusive. (Anymore. Should have seen me as a kid.)

      But I still really think the forces of good ought to leave this one alone. I don’t think it accomplishes what it’s supposed to.

  4. Nigel Greene

    Well, since you asked, the use of the terms real whitewash and the quoted terms that follow them, was intended to point out the pervasiveness of racism in our daily language, e.g., to whitewash something is to make something appear better, but to blacken or paint with a tar brush is to make it appear worse. At the same time, I remarking on the misplaced criticism of those who take offense to the use of the most racist word in our language are somehow missing the intellectual point of a great work because of over sensitivity. I believe that such criticism is dismissive of a valid reaction and intellectually superficial. To quote from your blog:

    “Can we use our brains once in a while instead of our adrenal glands? Can we communicate instead of hoisting catchphrases like banners so our mob can rally and shout down that other mob? Can we learn to listen to things that offend us instead of believing that righteousness is sufficient reason to silence the wrong-speaker?”

    I think that the righteousness of academic political correctness, i.e. – “Leave Twain”s work untouched – He is a genius” is as much a mob banner as taking personal offense to the word nigger. So I was responding to that.

    We agree that changing the word from “nigger” to “slave” in Huck Finn will change the book as it was written and intended and also alter the effect that it has had on some of those who read it. And as I said. before thats what he wrote, so leave it as is. But don’t expect, much less force me, to read it because you think its “great.” And donlt belittle me because I don’t.

    One commentator “HW” on the NY Times web page said it well:

    In his New Yorker essay, “The Black Man Cometh,” Hilton Als wrote, “Far too often, readers of color have to police the pages of classic literature. Instead of submerging themselves in the beauty of reading, they are put off by racial stereotypes.” In that essay, Als quotes a 1994 interview with Toni Morrison — who no one would doubt as a lover of the written word — in which she was asked, “When you encountered racial stereotypes in the classics of American literature—in Ernest Hemingway or Willa Cather or William Faulkner—how did you deal with them?” Morrison responded, “I skipped that part. Read over it. Because I loved those books. . . . So when they said these things that were profoundly racist, I forgave them.”

    Als continues to state that, “sometimes love is not enough to overcome the ‘nigger’ in an author’s mind.”

    • Well, I will point out that it’s almost impossible for me to resist referring to Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence in a post about his creator being censored. But yes, blacken, whitewash, dark impulses, lightness of being, blackhearted, mighty white of you.

      I can barely look at That Word without flinching, even in your comments, so it’s not as though I’m arguing for its use. But I reject the notion that there’s a single right answer here, and I think I’m making a reasonable point. That it clashes with your reasonable point doesn’t, in my view, negate either.

      If I hear you right, you’re implying that I’m toeing an academic PC line. Not only am I not doing that, but I’m not even sure which way a stereotypical PC academic would lean on this one. Isn’t the removal of the word more PC than its retention? I don’t subscribe to most academic ideas—and probably don’t know what most of them are, not least because I only went to college for three months—but my impression, from a small sampling, is that many are…poorly tethered.

      When I ask if we can use our brains instead of our adrenal glands, it doesn’t stop at the edge of any particular camp. In what commentary my casual browsing has set in front of my eyeballs, I see very little but reactionism and dogma on all parts. Not that I’ve put a lot of effort into looking for better, but this thread right here contains the most thought I’ve seen invested in discussing it.

      And I think you’re deploying a generic “you” when you talk about “me” forcing you to read something and belittling you for not thinking it’s great, but let’s not be generic. I wouldn’t do that to anyone, over any book, and some day if you’re bored, it’s easy to provoke my standard rant about the stupidity of forcing high school students to read adult books. I refused to crack open any of the assigned reading in 12th grade because I objected to being ordered what to think, and I’m not about to turn around and do that to anyone else.

      If I have a conclusion, it’s that I’m not saying I think you’re wrong. On the contrary: I think you’re right. You haven’t made a single point yet that I think you’re off-base about. What I’m saying is that even so, I think there’s more value in not painting over the ugliness than in making it easier to look at.

  5. I ran across this quote today from Francine Prose (the following two paragraphs are from her)

    [W]hat puzzles me most about the debate — I’m not trying to sound willfully naïve — is why the word “nigger” should be more freighted, more troubling, the cause of more (to paraphrase the edition’s introduction) “resentment” than the word “slave.” Racial epithets are inarguably disgusting, but not nearly so disgusting as an institution that treats human beings as property to be beaten, bought and sold. “Nigger” and “slave” are not synonyms by any stretch of the imagination.

    Jim’s problem is not that he is called a “nigger” but that he is chattel who can be freed or returned to his master. Instead of excising the word from the novel, students should be reminded that however uneasy the word makes us, what should make us much more uneasy is the fact that we — the United States — were a slave-holding society.

  6. Nigel Greene

    Being called or considered a “nigger” has little to do with whether one is a slave or free person.

    To paraphrase a quip from Malcom X. What do you call a black man with a PhD? “Nigger”

    See the difference now?

  7. Nigel Greene

    Again, we agree that the word should remain in the book. My disagreement is more with the assumption, implied here and stated in other things I’ve read on this topic (see today’s NY Times editorial), that Huckleberry Finn is a some literary classic that all should read. I have even more disagreement with those who question the mental toughness or maturity of those who take offense to the use of the word, even when used “in context. ” To be completely honest, it comes across to me like white folks telling black folks don’t be so sensitive, this is good for you . Well, let those who feel the need to flinch when reading have at it. Real life contains enough flinch moments for me already.

    • I think you’d have a hard time showing that it’s not a literary classic, but I won’t jump from that to “…that all should read.”

      I’m not pushing Twain on anyone. Literature is vast, and the canon, whatever shape it takes these days, which I don’t really care about and nobody seems to agree on anyway, is small.

      I don’t think that black people shouldn’t be so sensitive, or that I know better than you what’s good for you—and since it never occurred to me that the entry would be viewed through that lens, I didn’t build anything in to contradict that conclusion. I don’t think those things. I do find humanity as a whole pretty frustrating, though, and this story got me because it pushes two of my buttons: Words vs. meanings and truth vs. comfort, with a little mediocrity vs. quality and mob shouting vs. individual listening as extra incentives to annoyance.

      I have no idea what’s good for you, but this conversation’s been good for me. It’s hard to find intelligent engagement sometimes, especially when the subject is a known explosive. I can only guess how you felt reading and responding in depth, but I very much appreciate your willingness to do it.

  8. Missing in all this is perhaps the *point* of – what, shall we call him “Contentious-Word Jim”? – the character’s position in the novel…which is that Huck, despite his preconceptions, grows to realize that Jim is as fully human, if not more so, than he himself, despite their differences of skin color and condition. The epithet attached to Jim’s name is thus revealed as a social lie – and the power of the revelation of that lie is considerably diminished by censorship. Nigel Greene (who acknowledges he has not read the book) seems to believe that no one could possibly use the n-word except straightforwardly, and thereby appears to conclude that Twain’s usage of it condemns Twain as a scoundrel. I think his attitude is unsubtle.

    • Nigel

      Spanghew, you clearly have either not read what I wrote or not understood it. I am fully aware of how the use of the word in the book is typically justified and explained and, moreover, I have in fact read the book. Neither have I called Twain a scoundrel. Moreover, your unfounded assumptions that I comment out of ignorance and that my response (attitude) is “unsubtle” only serve to underscore the point of my response.

  9. It’s been 30 years since I last read it. I got two chapters in last night before falling asleep, and I’m mulling this morning. I’ll read more on the train later today.

    No new conclusions yet (slow thinker), and I don’t think I’m changing my mind about anything I posted yesterday, but approaching the text armed with more than just one cogent viewpoint is illuminating. Another post at some point, maybe.

  10. Nigel: Sorry I misread your words as saying you have not read the book. You did, after all, write “don’t expect me to read and accept that which offends me,” and “I have other things to do, and books to read, in my short time on this mortal coil.” And “don’t expect, much less force me, to read it because you think it’s ‘great.’ And don’t belittle me because I don’t.”

    So I think you can understand why I interpreted those words to mean that you hadn’t read it.

    I didn’t say you called Twain a “scoundrel”; I said that was the effect of your argument (“appears to conclude” means “this is my interpretation”).

    And I still think that if you cannot see beyond the presence of the word to its effect, your reading is unsubtle. That is, of course, my opinion. But there’s nothing subtle about “Fuck Mark Twain, Huck Finn, and the raft they rode in on.”

    But since you state you agree the word should not be changed, I’m not sure what your argument is – other than “I didn’t like the book.”

  11. If I can interject here:

    I think there’s more to Nigel’s position than “I didn’t like the book,” just as there’s more to yours than “I liked the book.”

    What I’d like, though obviously no one’s required to do what I like, would be to see less challenging of seemingly incomplete arguments and more considering that they bear more resemblance to tangential thesis statements than opposing points.

    I realize the Internet doesn’t lend itself to this approach…

  12. Nigel

    Spanghew – Let me be more subtle.
    I believe that one point Keith sought to make was that words are not per se offensive and that changing a writer’s words to simply prevent offense and avoid ugliness, takes away the meaning, feeling (power?) of the author’s chosen expression. To quote: “When you remove “offensive” language, you protect the status quo. Let people draw their own conclusions. Let some be offended; nobody ever died of offense.”

    Now, let me ask, you did you find my choice of words offensive? Do you believe that my writing “Fuck Mark Twain Huck Finn and the raft they floated in on” was indelicate and lacking in subtlety? Good. That was exactly the point. I chose those words with that intention – to point out that words of offense can act as a barrier to understanding, appreciation and comprehension. If you want to change my phrasing because it is not subtle and erudite, then you may want to reconsider your defense of the use of the N word as well. Cause the N word ain’t subtle.

    Another point Keith raised was that avoiding offense allows it to flourish. Quote “Can we learn to listen to things that offend us instead of believing that righteousness is sufficient reason to silence the wrong-speaker?” Well, I disagree with that wholesale application of that point. A target of offense does not have to listen to it to appreciate the ugliness of it.

    I get why Huck Finn is interpreted as going against the racist assumptions and attitudes of his time. I really do. I have heard, read and I understand the arguments for that position.

    But, I am not the audience for this author. So why is that significant? Why do I keep making that point? You might understandably ask why I shouldn’t, as an open-minded reader, see the text with an understanding of the time, place, audience and purpose for this work and set aside my personal feelings?

    A person reading Huck Finn is asked by the author to view the mind and thoughts of a racist with understanding and compassion, even if they reject the words or actions. They are asked to accept the context of the story and swallow their reaction to get why it is considered “important?”

    Well, I been there and done that. There was a time when I refused to take such writing personally, I held it, and other works of famous authors (Hemingway, Hesse, Faulkner, come to mind) at a impartial distance, viewed them with an attitude of tolerance, excused and overlooked their disregard for people like me and put their work into historical context to see their purpose, humanity and creativity, even as their words denied me the same consideration.

    I am no longer willing to continue to read such language dispassionately or without personal stake in the commitment of my time and resources it takes to read it. I am not willing to look my children in the eye, when the time comes that they are confronted with this issue, and tell them that they should not recoil, refuse or become upset when someone suggests that they look through the eyes of hate. And if they choose not to give the following drunken rant from Huck’s Pap a voice in their psyche:

    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. . . 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, and — ”

    or if they refuse to see the following cowering caricature of Jim as a justifiable depiction of a man, even of his time:

    [Jim] bounced up and stared at me wild. Then he drops down on his knees, and puts his hands together and says:
    “Doan’ hurt me — don’t! I hain’t ever done no harm to a ghos’. I alwuz liked dead people, en done all I could for ’em. You go en git in de river agin, whah you b’longs, en doan’ do nuffn to Ole Jim, ‘at ‘uz awluz yo’ fren’.”
    Well, I warn’t long making him understand I warn’t dead. I was ever so glad to see Jim. I warn’t lonesome now. I told him I warn’t afraid of HIM telling the people where I was. I talked along, but he only set there and looked at me; never said nothing. Then I says:
    “It’s good daylight. Le’s get breakfast. Make up your camp fire good.”
    “What’s de use er makin’ up de camp fire to cook strawbries en sich truck? But you got a gun, hain’t you? Den we kin git sumfn better den strawbries.”
    “Strawberries and such truck,” I says. “Is that what you live on?”
    “I couldn’ git nuffn else,” he says.
    “Why, how long you been on the island, Jim?”
    “I come heah de night arter you’s killed.”
    “What, all that time?”
    “Yes — indeedy.”
    “And ain’t you had nothing but that kind of rubbage to eat?”
    “No, sah — nuffn else.”
    “Well, you must be most starved, ain’t you?”
    “I reck’n I could eat a hoss. I think I could. How long you ben on de islan’?”
    “Since the night I got killed.”
    “No! W’y, what has you lived on? But you got a gun. Oh, yes, you got a gun. Dat’s good. Now you kill sumfn en I’ll make up de fire.”
    So we went over to where the canoe was, and while he built a fire in a grassy open place amongst the trees, I fetched meal and bacon and coffee, and coffee-pot and frying-pan, and sugar and tin cups, and the nigger was set back considerable, because he reckoned it was all done with witchcraft.

    then I will tell them I understand.

  13. I’m not spending all my thoughts here, because then I won’t be able to use them in another post. But the way I see it, the word “wholesale” up there is the key to my reconciling Nigel’s point of view with mine. (He’s got a valid one, after all, so I can’t just say “Eh, we disagree,” and go on my way.)

    When I wrote this entry, I wasn’t thinking about the boundaries where my opinion stops applying; I was only focused on trying to express what I was thinking and feeling. No, you’re right; wholesale application doesn’t work.

    I don’t think that rules out judicious application, though.

    On another note, the idea that holding a book at an impartial distance is a superior approach is really distasteful to me. I guess if you’re a critic, you’re paid to pretend it’s possible, but you’re a special case. Engage or don’t, but there’s no such thing as impartiality, and it’s the last thing I can imagine any author wanting.

    I do think it’s impossible to discuss Huck Finn fruitfully without both historical context and an acknowledgement of its polemic nature; but I’d also have to be an idiot not to concede that the target of offense doesn’t need to listen to it to appreciate the ugliness of it. Some of us do, some don’t. That’s what I’m thinking about.

  14. Thing is, unpleasant as history can be, we can’t understand it unless we confront it. And although the events in HF didn’t happen, HF itself – as a literary and cultural phenomenon – did.

    I read Huck’s Pap’s rant as being every bit as ugly as you read it – but that’s the point: Twain is showing us how ugly and ignorant a white person can be, all while ranting about alleged ignorance of black people. As for the characterization of Jim in Nigel’s second quotation: yeah, that shows Twain’s own ignorance and limitations…but that, too, is a necessary part of our history: that even a person who, for his time, was quite progressive and open-minded on racial issues still succumbed to harmful and hurtful stereotypes.

    So no: I don’t think anyone should be advised not to get upset. But neither changing the proximate cause of that upset (the word) nor refusing to read or teach the text containing it will prevent that upset – nor should it, because the anger here is wholly legitimate and justified by history. Softening it, dimming it down, or avoiding it does not help.

    Back to the larger issue: What irks me about censoring Twain is that, to me, it’s indicative of our nation’s refusal to come to terms with our own ugliness. Do the people who want to censor the text believe that if people read “slave Jim” rather than “nigger Jim,” that will somehow make things better? Because it won’t. Whitewashing* the past is a poor strategy for understanding it, and an even poorer one for working to make the present better.

    * Nigel’s remarks on “whitewash” and “blackball” and the like are germane…but I take the key aspect of “whitewash” to be the resulting *blankness*, not the “whiteness.” The idea is to cover up what’s there.

  15. Twain is showing us how ugly and ignorant a white person can be, all while ranting about alleged ignorance of black people.

    Who’s “us?”

    That’s what I spent most of the day thinking about.

  16. Well, my intention was that “us” was simply “readers”…but in retrospect I can see that it’s pretty easy to read what I wrote as if was thinking only of white people as readers, since black readers surely don’t need Mark Twain to tell them that. But I think I was thinking more of current readers…who regardless of race might still find themselves informed re 19c attitudes like those of Huck’s Pap.

  17. Most of what I think I know I learned from fiction.

    Librarians on several email lists have been discussing this too, of course. I think it’s an educational issue more than it’s a literary issue or a censorship issue. Libraries may have LOTS of abridgements, retellings, derivative works, classic comics, etc. versions of literary works, plus audio, film and interactive whatevers, depending on their policies. The issue for the editor who changed ‘nigger’ and ‘Injun’ was how to make the book (which he thinks of great importance) usable _in a classroom_.

    On the child_lit email list, Elissa Nelson posted (quoted with permission):
    ‘I can’t see myself teaching the “revised” Finn, but I will say that I don’t teach Huck Finn though I love it. I don’t teach it for many reasons, including length and what it would mean I had to not teach, but also because I teach in a school where I have about two-thirds white students and about a third Latino, with maybe one African-American student per section, and some without any African-American students. Putting the one black kid in the position of having to hear “nigger” over and over and somehow having to represent his/her race during any conversations addressing this issue, despite my intentions to avoid this, is not something I’m willing to do.’

    I find her compassion very moving.

    When I was in library school I did a group project for my kiddie-lit class on _Huck Finn_. My two co-presenters were education students, future teachers rather than library science students; and OMG were they not readers. Didn’t have TIME to read a book, so they each watched a movie of Huck Finn. They each watched a different movie version, and it never occurred to them that we were not all talking about exactly the same work of literature.

    At Peninsula College where I work now in the library, the international students are offered a series of graded ESL readers, brief simple-language retellings of works of fiction in the canon. At first I thought it was a bad idea, but now I see they might as well get some idea of the content of our cultural literacy while they try to improve their English. Why NOT read an 81-page _Jane Eyre_? (But what other lessons has the re-teller built into her/his text by omission or inclusion of elements?)

    Somewhere in all the discussion and links about Huck Finn I ran into a piece by an African-American (sorry, can’t find it again, it was somewhere in a NYT discussion thread) who said he hadn’t liked _Huck Finn_ in school and wouldn’t want to read it now either. And I thought, “Right on.” Why make students read it in any form? What alternative materials are there that would actually speak to the students, that would catch them afire??

    For myself I wonder whether students of any ethnicity will read an unabridged _Huck Finn_, vocabulary amended or not, unless forced. Isn’t there anything else to have them read that will teach whatever lessons are supposed to be being taught?

    Wouldn’t what we want them to learn about racism in American history still be there in the story Mark Twain tells, with or without the words ‘Injun’ and ‘Nigger’ in the text? And is there only this one book by this dead white guy that we want to offer them on the subject?

    Kids at Port Angeles High School have to read it, poor things. I bet it’s useless to them. Probably contributes to the truly frightful dropout rate. With or without nigger and injun perjoratives.

    Since I started hanging out at a tribal library, I have tried hard to learn from Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature blog. She has thought deeply about what we give young people to read, whether about themselves or about the Other.

    Miriam B.
    working at Peninsula College Library in Port Angeles,
    contract and volunteer worker at Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Library,
    and a denizen of beaches…

  18. I’m still at “don’t change it,” but for reasons along those same lines you just described, I’ve also arrived at “don’t teach it.”

    Which I already thought, but only in the context of my longstanding opinion of cramming adult books down adolescent throats. I still hold to that principle generally, but in the specific case of Huck Finn, I think further that it’s outright hurtful.

    But don’t change it. Let it be what it is. There’s still a lot of value to be had for many. It doesn’t need to have that value for all.

  19. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead of one comment thread down the page, there could be multiple threads extending radially from the original post?

    The single-line layout really makes diverse viewpoints look like opposing ones.

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