Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Little More on Huck...

Last week I talked a bit about the new version of Huck Finn coming out soon, in which the "N-word" is replaced by "slave," and "Injun" by "Indian."  The horrible racism of the time depicted in the story would, of course, remain, but it would be told with less offensive language.  I questioned the motives behind this change.  A friend of mine who is African American shared his feelings about the issue, and put his finger on what I was trying to say.  I thought I'd share his words here (with his permission, of course):

"I don't think this controversy is really about black people at all. I really don't think America cares enough about the opinions or feelings of black people for this to be on their radar. I think this is more about white people feeling awkward about their use of the word. Besides, if you're looking to be offended, try to ignore the thousand times the word is used and look at the depiction of Jim...that's pretty offensive on its own."

Language is important -- I believe that.  But racism is not only about language.  It's about policies and real estate values and schools.  It's about expectations and opportunity.  It's about remembering the past the way it was, not in some sanitized version that makes whites feel less guilty.

But remembering the past, even through an uncensored version of a book like Huck Finn, isn't enough, as far as I'm concerned.  My kids read Huck Finn (uncensored) in our mostly white, suburban high school. They learned, from their white teachers, about racism and how terrible it was.  What they didn't learn through the reading of that novel, or in any other way that I can tell, is how the legacy of discrimination continues to impact people today.  They discussed racism as a past social problem, as something that was solved by the Civil Rights Movement. In their minds, racism ended when Rosa Parks sat down in the front of the bus.  Don't get me wrong, works of history and historical fiction are an important and necessary part of education.  But they are not enough.  The timeline can't stop at the "I Had a Dream" speech.  We need to find ways to explore the topic of racism with students in the present tense, not only as a thing of the past.  And, obviously, that can't happen if the teachers think racism is over.

Teachers out there, what do you think?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Huck's in News Again

It's all over the internet -- apparently NewSouth Books is coming out with a censored version of Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a version that removes racial slurs and replaces them with more "acceptable" words. The pros and cons of this move are many.  Detractors cry censorship; defenders argue that TV censors movies all the time to make them acceptable to a wider audience, how is this any different? Defenders say the basic story has not changed with the removal of the few blatantly racist words that keep this book on the challenged list and out of the hands of many students.   Detractors of the bowdlerized version say that the words were there for a reason -- they show the true nature of our racist past and they're important.

What do I think?  I guess it depends on how you view Twain and his works -- did his books illustrate his own racism, or did they critique the racism of his time?  Scholars have debated that question for decades, and I certainly won't attempt to answer it here.  And, I have to admit that I've read accounts of African Americans who were forced to read Huck Finn in school and cringed at the racist language.  They felt humiliated in front of their white teachers and classmates.  I'm sure the same would hold true for any Native American children in the same situation.  Since I'm white, I can't really know how that would feel, so I don't think it's really my call.

Still, I'm interested in what's behind the desire to remove the racial slurs from the text.  Whether these words are included or not, the depictions of the people of color in the novel are clearly racist (or a clever critique of racism, depending on your belief about the author).  So it seems to me that by including the book in school curriculum, but removing a few racist words, we're saying that we want our kids to learn about our nation's racist history, but we don't want them to be too uncomfortable as they learn it.  And we certainly don't want to disrupt the comfort level of the white teachers who will teach this work.  After all, we wouldn't want anyone to feel guilty about racism, would we?