Silencing Huck Finn

Maybe there was some legitimacy to banning some of the books on the list. Maybe there were lines that should not be crossed or limits that should not be tested. And so we would read the books and identify the lines and come away with a better understanding of censorship and book banning.

But, when the class started, something happened that I did not plan or expect. No sooner did I approach my first lecture on Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn than I began to think about censoring myself. —Douglas L. Howard

Silencing Huck Finn (Chronicle of Higher Education)

I regularly teach Huck Finn when I teach American Lit, and so far I haven’t been aware of students expressing a difficulty about the racist language. Although the central character is about 13 or 14 years old, the book wasn’t written to be read by people who are that young. In fact, Huck often doesn’t “get” the jokes that Clemens makes — as when Huck expresses horror at witnessing a man being shot on the street, and then lets the reader know that he found a good spot near the window when he watches the man die.

I let the students know that if they feel uncomfortable saying the n-word when reading a quotation in class, they can just skip it. Of course, that doesn’t address the full complexity of the language issue, but it’s a start.

I will probably ask the students to write a short in-class essay on how they would feel about using and/or hearing the n-word in class discussion. I don’t think today’s college students are sensitive flowers that need to be protected from language that their elders find offensive. Words like “queer” and even ones with less emotional baggage like “bad” and “wicked” mean one thing to one generation, and something else to another. Consider also the literal connotations of “lousy” and “sucks”.

A few years ago, a student clamped her hand over her mouth when telling me “Shut up!!” in a context that clearly meant, “I can’t believe what I’m hearing,” and while the class tittered, I wasn’t at all offended. (I saw that exchange on TV in ads for the DVD of “The Princess Diaries” while watching cable TV during my week-long exile from the Internet.)

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