I was supposed to write a back-to-school post, but then back-to-school happened. I promised I’d write by the end of August, and then September happened while October keeps on happening. I promised myself it would be all warm and fuzzy and “yay back to school.”
Instead, I want to write to you today about some pretty complicated things, and if I’m being honest, I’m at a loss where to begin. I’m going to try anyway: I teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain in my classroom. In case you are unaware of the complication involved in that task, here’s a short briefing. In this literary text, the author chose to use a derogatory term in describing the novel’s runaway slave, Jim. He didn’t just use it once; he used some 271 times. This fact has made Adventures of Huckleberry Finn arguably one of the most banned books of our century. It is still officially and unofficially banned in parts of the United States. I tell you this so that you will understand how controversial my next statement is: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a necessary book in a high school curriculum.
My intent is not to justify the literary merits of a book that challenged the status quo in its day, or to explain why Huck’s familiarity with that derogatory term is crucial to understanding the novel as an indictment of inherent racism. You will have to read the book, without any personal agenda or attempt at racial politics to understand why Huck’s “alright then, I’ll go to hell” moment was and is a siren call in American literature. You’ll have to read it to understand that when Huck calls Jim “my nigger”, it isn’t just a term of affection but an acknowledgement that in a corrupt, sickened culture, it is Huck’s white privilege that saves Jim and shames Huck. You’ll have to read it to understand why Toni Morrison’s states “the argument that this novel is has been identified, reidentified, examined, waged, and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed.”
I say this in so many words to every class I teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I want my students to talk about that word, the history of racism in our country, and even the racism that still exists. Most of the time, the conversations surrounding that novel are genuine, reflective, difficult, and redeeming. For me, it’s an acknowledgement of my own white guilt, my own white privilege, and my own cultural heritage. It reminds me that we still have so much more to do.
This is all just part of why I write you.
Today, a colleague shared with me an incident that happened while on dorm duty (I work at a boarding school). Four students at my school took it upon themselves to reproach another student for supposedly using that same derogatory term in class. This may not seem so terrible. Everyone is allowed to voice their hurt, their uncomfortableness in being offended, intended or not. Let me also share with you that none of these four girls are in the class that this offense was rumored to have been said. These four students approached the other student in her bedroom. One more thing- this class is currently studying, you guessed it, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
My first thoughts were scrambled in outrage. Rage became questions: how does this cultivate an environment that promises integrity, compassion, or awareness of self and others, a motto my school holds dear? How does this cultivate an environment that promises integrity, compassion, or awareness of self and others, a motto my country holds dear?
The United States we all live in is built on innovation, creativity, and diversity. It’s also built on the backs of slaves, the blood of brothers (and sisters, my inner feminist reminds me), and a complicated history. And we can’t even begin to understand this legacy or inspire progress if we can’t find a way to talk about it. I worry that my students are so occupied with the politicalness of their identities that they are unable to divorce themselves to think analytically about something. But what worries me most is that what could have been a great conversation was instead an accusation. There is no clear cut answer on many issues surrounding race, racism, and identity. But there is a way to talk about it.
I don’t believe this is the way, and I really believe we as a
community nation should start talking about how to talk so that our students we can have those genuine, reflective, difficult, and redeeming conversations. And until we can do that, we doom every generation after us to not only dismiss Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the uncomfortableness it invokes, but we also deny any opportunity for the next generation to understand why Jim is crucial to progress.