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More on ‘Huck Finn’ and Censorship

The Huck Finn controversy has popped up in USA Today, CNN,  ABC (with a teacher of mine quoted), AP,  the New York Times (here and here and here), and in John’s post at Brainstorm, but as far as I know, the controversy began with a blog post by Cynthia Haven here.  Interesting, it didn’t start with the new edition of the novel, but with a controversy over censorship in a school in Brooklyn. It seems that Charles Barron, a New York City councilman and former-Black panther, was angry because the principal tried to ban a set of sexually-explicit poems written by a student who is Barron’s god-daughter.

“I find it interesting that Huckleberry Finn is a classic when it says [the n-word] 200 times,” Barron said. “Tylibah’s book is the opposite. It’s very inspiring. I’d like to see Huckleberry Finn banned.”

That prompted an op-ed by Shelley Fisher Fishkin (linked to in Haven’s post) defending the book and decrying censorship. One day later, Haven added another post that included this comment by poet Sam Gwynn:

“Frankly, I just can’t teach it any longer. I know it’s great, and I can lecture for a day or so about how Twain is being faithful to the dialects and to the way that people spoke back then. But trying to lecture about its literary merits takes a back seat when I see how African American students (I’m talking about teenage sophomores, taking the class for core credit) are reacting to the iterations of THAT WORD. The problem is that Twain doesn’t distinguish between those who are using the word in a ‘kindly’ manner (we could probably assume that this is the only word for black people that Huck has ever heard) and those who are using it an an epithet. Used indiscriminately in these ways, it just makes everyone in a classroom uncomfortable. Maybe if I were a better (or younger) teacher I could use this book to challenge all kinds of assumptions about language and art. I just don’t find myself up to the fight anymore, at least at the sophomore level. I think this is a pretty good 2/3 of a novel, but I really wonder why it has become canonized as the GAN.”  Haven adds this note on GAN: “That’s the Great American Novel for the uninitiated.”

After Haven quotes Gwynn, she cites “a constant reader” who alerts her to the coming edition of Huck Finn without “THAT WORD.” She then quotes Gribben explaining that the book “can be enjoyed deeply and authentically without those continual encounters with those now-indefensible racial slurs,” then wryly comments, “It is the first volume to wash out Twain’s mouth with soap.”

Haven’s selections are illuminating, for in Gribben’s and Gwynn’s explanations the whole problem crystallizes. When Gwynn puts the n-word in CAPS, he registers its force, which explains why he feels justified in deleting it.  This is, however, to give the term a moral meaning that it does not deserve. Yes, the n-word has moral meaning, but in the classroom it should be circumscribed by its historical existence. To grant it so much power today, at this moment, is to be captive to the power it possessed in 1884 and in 1950.

Likewise, when Gribben terms the n-word ”now-indefensible,” he assumes a moral stance toward it that is misdirected. No teacher should approach the language in a book written more than 100 years ago as in a condition of defensible or indefensible. Assigning a work is not the same thing as endorsing it. It is to hold the work up to analysis.  Furthermore, one of the lessons of the assignment should be to recognize that one can analyze something that one deplores. Simply deploring it is not enough, we should tell our students. The deletion of the n-word in the novel does the opposite, teaching students to consult their sensitivities more than their intellects.  Thanks, Cynthia, for bringing the action into the light.

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