Saturday, February 13, 2016

Teaching Huckleberry Finn

There is a specific problem with teaching this book. There is a word in it that some people don’t like. (Most people, in fact). It’s a fine book, a borderline classic. It would be a great shame if people stopped reading it for fear of a word. Is it better to change the word ‘nigger’, where it occurs, to stop publishing the book, remove it from libraries, stop worrying about it, or when encouraging children to read it, explain why it uses that word, and its significance in that context?

Banning books is not civilized, and is almost impossible in practice, anyway.

Changing the word to something else is possible, and has been done before, but it’s a matter for the publisher. The book is out of copyright and freely available in electronic form, and I can’t see Gutenberg or Amazon or anyone else bothering to make that change. Many books have things in them that a lot of people don’t like.

I don’t believe the bad word should be forcibly removed, and the idea of Bowdlerization of any sort does not much appeal. The author wrote what he wrote and he did so for reasons which we cannot always understand, or even know. In the case of Huck Finn, the word is largely used by Huck himself, is not usually derogatory in any way, and it is certainly not an expression of hate.

I have never used the book in class, but I was thinking about it, partly because of some discussion I saw about this very matter. If I did, the word could be used as one of many internal devices for interpreting the internal and external context of the book.

This is great in theory, but the theory would clash rather badly with reality if that reality were a black student in the classroom. There aren’t many here, hardly any in fact, and the word doesn’t have the same cultural implications, but in the English-speaking world, to try to explain that an expression that  a black student has been told all his life means that someone hates you, and that he may well have experienced as such on a number of occasions, that he'll just have to lump it because that's what Twain wrote, is not quite so easy as it sounds.

I imagine it could be handled by asking the students what they think, negotiating among several options. Treating students as responsible, mature people is a good way of helping them to act like it, and to become like it. It would depend on the nature of the class. It's easy for a teacher to conclude that it's not worth the trouble, there are plenty of good books to read. I understand that position, but it can very instructive to work out a way of introducing difficult stuff in the classroom. It invariably means communicating with individuals, which is why it's rewarding for everyone, and why making some blanket policy, or talking in vacuo, doesn't work.

As a result of these idle ponderings I am about to read the book again. My thoughts may appear here in a few days.


Vincent said...

Not sure if you want to know what your blog readers think about this.

The Hickory Wind said...

I very much want to know. My dislike of authoritarian decree makes me want to resist condemnation or censorship of the book. On the other hand, my experience in the classroom suggests that they would very real difficulties in using it in that setting. Any reader's opinion or insight would be very welcome.

Vincent said...

I think there are areas in which teachers should provide leadership rather than promote democracy, on the basis that children are open to all sorts of influences, some of them ignorant or malign, against which they don’t have the wisdom that maturity offers. By leadership I don’t mean telling them what to think.

This leadership should be exercised in explaining to children that meanings of words can change over time. Words considered by the language police today too poisonous to be spoken, usually have or have had innocent meanings too. Apart from conversations with the elderly, the only witness we have to this fact is the written word, as in books, which are part of history. Some history is unpleasant, other aspects of it may be commonly misunderstood. Censoring instances of the word “nigger” is intrinsically wrong, and destroys evidence that the word by itself need not be hateful. To read Huckleberry Finn gives an important opportunity for children to see this directly, without being told so.

The elimination of racism and other forms of prejudice is hindered and not aided by mindlessly blaming words as if they had absolute meanings. It is a teacher’s responsibility at all times to be faithful to how language works. “Marriage” is one example. For hundreds of years, it meant the union of one man and one woman. Now it has been extended. The older meaning remains valid, historically and for most of the human race alive today, who have not caught up, or don’t wish to. The thought police have been prompt to act of course, sacking employees who don’t recongize the new meaning.

Well-meaning activism is to blame. It rides on the obvious truth that minorities may be ill-served by democracy, for their vote (assuming they have one) may be over-ruled. In practice, activism uses intimidation (sometimes violence) to force behaviour in a certain direction. In order to institute a kind of thought police, it places a heavy taboo on certain words. They simply must not be used in any context by anyone in the entire world, except perhaps the minorities they are trying to protect. And when the battles have been won, the activists still feel the need to ride on their high horse, and instil fear on those who are too luke-warm in the matter. The easiest thing to do is ban the use of certain words. It is said that they may cause offence, but activists don’t rely on the decency of most people to avoid causing offence. They put extreme taboos on certain words, because somewhere in the world these words have been used with hate and violence, and these cruelties have not been fully eliminated, even today.

So what has this to do with “nigger” in a book by Mark Twain? Nothing. Only that people have become irrationally frightened of the word. I can give you a concrete example.

My wife, who’s black and lived in Jamaica till 10 years ago, attended a meeting at an NHS hospital where she was working. Her manager inadvertently used the idiom “nigger in the woodpile”. There was a moment of deathly silence when she realized what word she had used. She cried out, burst into tears and ran from the room. My wife, because she’s a nurturing sort of person, was the one who went after her, and tried to soothe away her sobs. Why was the woman upset? Not because she was so tender-hearted as to regret causing offence (for which there was no reason); but at the prospect of an incident being reported and added to her otherwise unblemished employment record. Thus we make a rod to beat our own backs.

It is a teacher’s duty to understand the world’s craziness, and allow the students to see it for themselves, rather than cave in to it like all the others.

The Hickory Wind said...

Thank you for these excellent and thoughtful comments.

The first part of my response has just disappeared into the ether, but I'll try again.
Thank you for these excellent and thoughtful comments.

The first part of my response has just disappeared into the ether, but I'll try again.

I dislike being told what words I can and canmot use. I especially dislike being told what I supposedly meant by the words I used. I imagine most people feel this way and would ignore tjose who would dictate on language, but it is easy enough to sew guilt and division, and some people count on that.

To introduce Huck Finn into a class specifically to prove you can to those who say you can't is, at least, to discomfit and embarrass any black students in it. To use Huck Finn because it's a fine book and worth reading, and because it isn't what students may have been told it us, is a different matter, and may be worth doing.

According to my Kindle there are 257 uses of the word 'nigger' in the book. According to my re-reading, none are motivated by hate, a few are certainly an expression of contempt. Most uses are by Huck himself, as character and narrator, and are descriptive, sometimes affectionate. If students can see this for themselves without being implicated in some ideological game, I would certainly be in favour. Perhaps quite simply a direct approach. 'Forget what you think you know about this book. Read it and then come back and tell the rest of us what you found.'

In any case I am unlikely to have that problem. In my small town in southern Spain, I work, among other things, in a high school. There are only a handful of black students, but they do exist. A handful of Arabs, a handful of Eastern Europeans, a few Chinese, a couple of Indians. Among a thousand or so. And nobody cares. It is literally as though their classmates hadn't even noticed. They don't need to be lectured on race relations, or how to hide their supposed feelings, or tiptoe around the matter, putting everyone on edge. If you don't teach them race matters, it doesn't.

I imagine US society has been too deeply poisoned by its history to reach such a state of normality in the near future, but a lot of people seem very keen on perpetuating the poison while claiming to be fighting it.