Teaching Huck Finn:
The Controversy and the Challenge

Resources on this Site:

1. The Struggle for Tolerance by Peaches Henry.

2. Racism and Huckleberry Finn by Allen Webb (includes list of works for teaching about slavery).

Additional Internet Resources:

1. A site created for teachers by WGBH television to compliment the PBS special, "Born to Trouble," that focuses on the innovative Huck Finn curriculum developed in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

2. The Huck Finn and Censorship Teacher Cyberguide developed for the California Online Resources for Educators Project.

The Struggle for Tolerance:

Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn

Peaches Henry

Satire and Evasion: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn, 1992

In the long controversy that has been Huckleberry Finn's history, the novel has been criticized, censored, and banned for an array of perceived failings, including obscenity, atheism, bad grammar, coarse manners, low moral tone, and antisouthernism. Every bit as diverse as the reasons for attacking the novel, Huck Finn's detractors encompass parents, critics, authors, religious fundamentalists, right­wing politicians, and even librarians.(1)

Ironically, Lionel Trifling, by marking Huck Finn as "one of the world's great books and one of the central documents of American culture," (2) and T. S. Eliot, by declaring it "a masterpiece," (3) struck the novel certainly its most fateful and possibly its most fatal blow. Trilling's and Eliot's resounding endorsements provided Huck with the academic respectability and clout that assured his admission into America's classrooms. Huck's entrenchment in the English curricula of junior and senior high schools coincided with Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that ended public school segregation, legally if not actually, in 1954. Desegregation and the civil rights movement deposited Huck in the midst of American literature classes which were no longer composed of white children only, but now were dotted with black youngsters as well. In the faces of these children of the revolution, Huck met the group that was to become his most persistent and formidable foe. For while the objections of the Gilded Age, of fundamentalist religious factions, and of unreconstructed Southerners had seemed laughable and transitory, the indignation of black students and their parents at the portrayal of blacks in Huck Finn was not at all comical and has not been short-lived.

The presence of black students in the classrooms of white America the attendant tensions of a country attempting to come to terms with its racial tragedies, and the new empowerment of blacks to protest led to Huck Finn's greatest struggle with censorship and banning. Black protesters, offended by the repetitions of "nigger" in the mouths of white and black characters, Twain's minstrel­like portrayal of the escaped slave Jim and of black characters in general, and the negative traits assigned to blacks, objected to the use of Huck Finn in English courses. Though blacks may have previously complained about the racially offensive tone of the novel, it was not until September 1957 that the New York Times reported the first case that brought about official reaction and obtained public attention for the conflict. The New York City Board of Education had removed Huck Finn from the approved textbook lists of elementary and junior high schools. The book was no longer available for classroom use at the elementary and junior high school levels, but could be taught in high school and purchased for school libraries. Though the Board of Education acknowledged no outside pressure to ban the use of Huck Finn, a representative of one publisher said that school officials had cited "some passages derogatory to Negroes" as the reason for its contract not being renewed. The NAACP, denying that it had placed any organized pressure on the board to remove Huck Finn, nonetheless expressed displeasure with the presence of "racial slurs" and "belittling racial designations" in many of Twain's works. (4) Whether or not the source of dissatisfaction could be identified, disapproval of Huck Finn's racial implications existed and had made itself felt.

The discontent with the racial attitudes of Huck Finn that began in 1957 has surfaced periodically over the past thirty years. In 1963 the Philadelphia Board of Education, after removing Huck Finn, replaced it with an adapted version which "tone[d] down the violence, simplify[d] the Southern dialect, and delete[d] all derogatory references to Negroes." (5) A civil rights leader in Pasco, Washington, attacked Twain's use of "nigger" in 1967 (6) two years later Miami­Dade Junior College (Miami, Florida) excised the text from its required reading list after Negro students complained that it "embarrassed them" (7) Around 1976, striking a bargain with parents of black students who demanded the removal of Huck Finn from the curriculum, the administration of New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, agreed to withdraw the novel from required courses and confined Huck to the environs of elective courses and the school library. This compromise did not end Huck's problems in that north­shore Chicago upper middle­class community, however, for as recently as March 1988 black parents "discovered" Huck in American Studies, an elective course team taught by an English teacher and an American history teacher, and once again approached school administrators about banning the book. (8)

The most outspoken opponent to Huck Finn has been John Wallace, a former administrator at the Mark Twain Intermediate School (Fairfax County, Virginia), who in 1982, while serving on the school's Human Relations Committee, spearheaded a campaign to have Huck stricken from school curricula. A decision by the school's principal to yield to the Human Relations Committee's recommendations was later overridden by the superintendent of schools. Repeatedly scoring the book as "racist trash," Wallace has raised the issue in other school districts throughout his twenty­eight­year tenure in public education. Since the Fairfax County incident, he has appeared on ABC's "Nightline" and CNN's "Freeman Reports" and has traveled the country championing the cause of black children who he says are embarrassed and humiliated by the legitimization of "nigger" in public schools. Devoted to the eradication of Huck Finn from the schools, he has "authored" an adapted version of Twain's story. (9) Wallace, aggressively if not eloquently, enunciates many of the deleterious effects that parents and those who support them feel the teaching of Huck Finn in junior high and senior high schools has on their children. (10)

The fact that people from Texas to Iowa to Illinois to Pennsylvania to Florida to Virginia to New York City concur with Wallace's assessment of Huck Finn demands the attention of the academic community. To condemn concerns about the novel as the misguided rantings of "know nothings and noise makers" (11) is no longer valid or profitable; nor can the invocation of Huck's immunity under the protectorate of "classic" suffice. Such academic platitudes no longer intimidate, nor can they satisfy, parents who have walked the halls of the university and have shed their awe of academe. If the academic establishment remains unmoved by black readers' dismay, the news that Huck Finn ranks ninth on the list of thirty books most frequently challenged (12) should serve as testimony that the book's "racial problem" is one of more consequence than the ancillary position to which scholars have relegated it. (13) Certainly, given Huck Finn's high position in the canon of American literature, its failure to take on mythic proportions for, or even to be a pleasant read for, a segment of secondary school students merits academic scrutiny.

The debate surrounding the racial implications of Huck Finn and its appropriateness for the secondary school classroom gives rise to myriad considerations. The actual matter and intent of the text are a source of contention. The presence of the word "nigger," the treatment of Jim and blacks in general, the somewhat difficult satiric mode, and the ambiguity of theme give pause to even the most flexible reader. Moreover, as numerous critics have pointed out, neither junior high nor high school students are necessarily flexible or subtle readers. The very profundity of the text renders the process of teaching it problematic and places special emphasis on teacher ability and attitude. Student cognitive and social maturity also takes on special significance in the face of such a complicated and subtle text.

The nature of the complexities of Huck Finn places the dynamics of the struggle for its inclusion in or exclusion from public school curricula in two arenas. On the one hand, the conflict manifests itself as a contest between lay readers and so­called scholarly experts, particularly as it concerns the text. Public school administrators and teachers, on the other hand, field criticisms that have to do with the context into which the novel is introduced. In neither case, however, do the opponents appear to hear each other. Too often, concerned parents are dismissed by academia as "neurotics" (14) who have fallen prey to personal racial insecurities or have failed to grasp Twain's underlying truth. In their turn, censors regard academics as inhabitants of ivory towers who pontificate on the virtue of Huck Finn without recognizing its potential for harm. School officials and parents clash over the school's right to intellectual freedom and the parents' right to protect their children from perceived racism.

Critics vilify Twain most often and most vehemently for his aggressive use of the pejorative term "nigger." Detractors, refusing to accept the good intentions of a text that places the insulting epithet so often in the mouths of characters, black and white, argue that no amount of intended irony or satire can erase the humiliation experienced by black children. Reading Huck Finn aloud adds deliberate insult to insensitive injury, complain some. In a letter to the New York Times, Allan B. Ballard recalls his reaction to having Huck Finn read aloud "in a predominantly white junior high school in Philadelphia some 30 years ago."

I can still recall the anger I felt as my white classmates read aloud the word "nigger." In fact, as I write this letter I am getting angry all over again. I wanted to sink into my seat. Some of the whites snickered, others giggled. I can recall nothing of the literary merits of this work that you term "the greatest of all American novels." I only recall the sense of relief I felt when I would flip ahead a few pages and see that the word "nigger" would not be read that hour. (15)

Moreover, the presentation of the novel as an "American classic" serves as an official endorsement of a term uttered by the most prejudiced racial bigots to an age group eager to experiment with any language of shock value. One reporter has likened the teaching of the novel to eighth­grade kids to "pulling the pin of a hand grenade and tossing it into the all too common American classroom." (16)

Some who have followed Huck Finn's racial problems express dismay that some blacks misunderstand the ironic function Twain assigned "nigger" or that other blacks, inspite of their comprehension of the irony, will allow themselves and their progeny to be defeated by a mere pejorative. Leslie Fiedler would have parents "prize Twain's dangerous and equivocal novel not in spite of its use of that wicked epithet, but for the way in which it manages to ironize it; enabling us finally­without denying our horror or our guilt­to laugh therapeutically at the 'peculiar institution' of slavery." (17) If Wallace has taken it upon himself to speak for the opponents of Huck Finn, Nat Hentoff, libertarian journalist for the Village Voice, has taken equal duty as spokesperson for the novel's champions. Hentoff believes that confronting, Huck will give students "the capacity to see past words like 'nigger' . . into what the writer is actually saying." He wonders, "What's going to happen to a kid when he gets into the world if he's going to let a word paralyze him so he can't think?" (18) Citing an incident in Warrington, Pennsylvania, where a black eighth grader was allegedly verbally and physically harassed by white students after reading Huck Finn in class, Hentoff declares the situation ripe for the educational plucking by any "reasonably awake teacher." He enthuses:


What a way to get Huck and Jim, on the one hand, and all those white racists they meet., on the other hand, off the pages of the book and into that very classroom. Talk about a book coming alive!

Look at that Huck Finn. Reared in racism, like all the white kids in his town. And then, on the river, on the raft with Jim, shucking off that blind ignorance because this runaway slave is the most honest, perceptive, fair­minded man this white boy has ever known. What a book for the children, all the children, in Warrington, Pennsylvania, in 1982! (19)

Hentoff laments the fact that teachers missed such a teachable moment and mockingly reports the compromise agreed upon­by parents and school officials, declaring it a "victory for niceness." Justin Kaplan flatly denies that "anyone, of any color, who had actually read Huckleberry Finn, instead of merely reading or hearing about it, and who had allowed himself or herself even the barest minimum of intelligent response to its underlying spirit and intention, could accuse it of being 'racist' because some of its characters use offensive racial epithets. (20) Hentoff's mocking tone and reductive language Kaplan's disdainful and condescending attitude, and Fiedler's erroneous supposition that "nigger" can be objectified so as to allow a black person "to laugh therapeutically" at slavery illustrate the incapacity of non-blacks to comprehend the enormous emotional freight attached to the hateword "nigger" for each black person. Nigger is "fightin" words and everyone in this country, black and white, knows it." (21) In his autobiography, Langston Hughes offers a cogent explanation of the signification of "nigger" to blacks:

The word nigger to colored people of high and low degree is like a red rag to a bull. Used rightly or wrongly, ironically or seriously, of necessity for the sake of realism, or impishly for the sake of comedy, it doesn't matter. Negroes do not like it in any book or play whatsoever, be the book or play ever so sympathetic in its treatment of the basic problems of the race. Even though the book or play is written by a Negro, they still do not like it.

The word nigger, you see, sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America. (22)

Nonblacks know implicitly that to utter "nigger" in the presence of a Negro is to throw down a gauntlet that will be taken up with a vengeance.

To dismiss the word's recurrence in the work as an accurate rendition of nineteenth­century American linguistic conventions denies what every black person knows: far more than a synonym for slave, "nigger" signifies a concept. It conjures centuries of specifically black degradation and humiliation during which the family was disintegrated, education was denied, manhood was trapped within a forced perpetual puerilism, and womanhood was destroyed by concubinage. If one grants that Twain substituted "nigger" for "slave," the implications of the word do not improve; "nigger" denotes the black man as a commodity, as chattel. (23)

In addition to serving as a reminder of the "peculiar institution" "nigger" encapsulates the decades of oppression that followed emancipation. "It means not only racist terror and lynch mobs but that victims 'deserve it.'" (24) Outside Central High in Little Rock in 1954 it was emblazoned across placards; and across the South throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s it was screamed by angry mobs. Currently, it is the chief taunt of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. In short, "nigger" has the odious distinction of signifying all "the shame, the frustration, the rage, the fear" that has been so much a part of the history of race relations in the United States, and blacks still consider it "'dirtier" than any of the once­taboo four­syllable Anglo­Saxon monosyllabics." (25) So to impute blacks' abhorrence of "nigger" to hypersensitivity compounds injustice with callousness and signals a refusal to acknowledge that the connotations of "that word" generate a cultural discomfort that blacks share with no other racial group.

To counteract the Pavlovian response that "nigger" triggers for many black readers, some scholars have striven to reveal the positive function the word serves in the novel by exposing the discrepancy between the dehumanizing effect of the word and the real humanity Of Jim. (26) Fiedler cites the passage in which Huck lies to Aunt Sally about a steamboat explosion that hurt no one but "killed a nigger," and Aunt Sally callously responds, "Well, it's lucky, because sometimes people do get hurt" (chap. 32); he notes that the passage brims with humor at the expense of Aunt Sally and the convention to which she conforms. But Fiedler is also of the opinion that Huck does not get the joke­does not recognize the humor of the fact that he and Aunt Sally by "dehumanizing the Negro diminish their own humanity. (27) It seems to Huck's foes (and to me) that if Huck does not get the joke, then there is no joke, and he becomes as culpable as Aunt Sally.


However, Fiedler's focus on this dialogue is to the point, because racial objectors isolate it as one of the most visible and detrimental slurs of the novel. The highlighting of this passage summons contrasting perspectives on it. Kaplan argues that "one has to be deliberately dense to miss the point Mark Twain is making here and to construe such passages as evidences of his 'racism." (28) Detractors drawing the obvious inference from the dialogue, arrive at a conclusion different from Kaplan's, and their response cannot simply be disregarded as that of the unsophisticated reader. In order to believe in Twain's satirical intention, one has to believe in Huck's good faith toward Jim. That is to say, one has to believe that, rather than reflecting his own adherence to such conventions, Huck simply weaves a tale that marks him as a "right­thinking" youngster.

The faith in Huck that Twain's defenders display grows out of the manner in which he acquits himself at his celebrated "crisis of conscience," less than twenty­four hours prior to his encounter with Aunt Sally. There is no denying the rightness of Huck's decision to risk his soul for Jim. But there is no tangible reason to assume that the regard Huck acquires for Jim during his odyssey down the river is generalized to encompass all blacks. Further, Huck's choice to "go to hell" has little to do with any respect he has gained for Jim as a human being with an inalienable right to be owned by no one. Rather, his personal affection for the slave governs his overthrow of societal mores. It must be remembered that Huck does not adjudge slavery to be wrong; he selectively disregards a system that he ultimately believes is right. So when he discourses with Aunt Sally, he is expressing views he still holds. His emancipatory attitudes extend no further than his love for Jim. It seems valid to argue that were he given the option of freeing other slaves, Huck would not necessarily choose manumission.

Twain's apparent "perpetuation of racial stereotypes" through his portrayal of Jim and other blacks in Huck Finn bears relation to his use of "nigger" and has fostered vociferous criticism from anti­Huck Finn forces. Like the concept "nigger," Twain's depiction of blacks, particularly Jim, represents the tendency of the dominant white culture to saddle blacks with traits that deny their humanity and mark them as inferior. Critics disparage scenes that depict blacks as childish, inherently less intelligent than whites, superstitious beyond reason and common sense, and grossly ignorant of standard English. Further, they charge that in order to entertain his white audience, Twain relied upon the stock conventions of "black minstrelsy," which "drew upon European traditions of using the mask of blackness to mock individuals or social forces." (29) Given the seemingly negative stereotypical portraits of blacks, parents concerned that children, black and white, be exposed to positive models of blacks are convinced that Huck Finn is inappropriate for secondary classrooms.

Critics express their greatest displeasure with Twain's presentation of Jim, the runaway slave viewed by most as second only to Huck in importance to the novel's thematic structure. Although he is the catalyst that spurs Huck along his odyssey of conscience, Jim commences the novel (and to some degree remains) as the stereotypical, superstitious "darky" that Twain's white audience would have expected and in which they would have delighted.

In his essay "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," Ralph Ellison examines the play Twain gives the minstrel figure. Though Twain does strike Jim in the mold of the minstrel tradition, Ellison believes that we observe "Jim's dignity and human capacity" emerge from "behind this stereotype mask." Yet by virtue of his minstrel mask, Jim's role as an adult is undercut, and he often appears more childlike than Huck. Though Ellison writes that "it is not at all odd that this black­faced figure of white fan [the minstrel darky] is for Negroes a symbol of everything they rejected in the white man's thinking about race, in themselves and in their own group," his final analysis seems to be that Jim's humanity transcends the limits of the minstrel tradition. (30)

Taking a more critical stance than Ellison, Frederick Woodard and Donnarae MacCann, in "Huckleberry Finn and the Traditions of Blackface Minstrelsy," examine specific incidents throughout the novel in the light of the minstrel tradition. Denying that Jim is used to poke fun at whites, as some scholars suggest, Woodard and MacCann cite the appeal that the "ridiculous or paternalistic portrayals of Black Americans" held for "the white theatre­going audience," Twain's own delight in minstrel shows, and his "willingness to shape his message to his audience." (31) Noting that the stereotypical blackface portrayals were thought to be realistic by Twain and many of his white contemporaries, the pair highlight various incidents in Huck Finn that they think illustrate their contention that Jim plays the minstrel role to Huck's straight man. For instance, Huck's and Jim's debate about French (chap. 14) bears a striking resemblance to the minstrel­show dialogue that Twain deemed "happy and accurate imitation[s] of the usual and familiar negro quarrel." (32) Though Jim's logic is superior to Huck's, argue Woodard and MacCann, the scene plays like a minstrel­show act because "Jim has the information­base of a child." (33)

Huck Finn advocates, tending to agree with Ellison's judgment that Jim's fullness of character reveals itself, offer readings of Jim that depart sharply from the Woodard and MacCann assessment. Some view Twain's depiction of Jim early in the novel as the necessary backdrop against which Huck's gradual awareness of Jim's humanity is revealed. These early renditions of Jim serve more to lay bare Huck's initial attitudes toward race and racial relations than they do to characterize Jim, positively or negatively. As the two fugitives ride down the Mississippi deeper and deeper into slave territory, the power of Jim's personality erodes the prejudices Huck's culture (educational, political, social, and legal) has instilled. Such readings of passages that appear to emphasize Jim's superstitions, gullibility, or foolishness allow Twain to escape the charge of racism and be seen as championing blacks by exposing the falseness of stereotypes. This view of Twain's motivation is evident in letters written to the New York Times in protest of the New York City Board of Education's decision to ban the book in 1957:

Of all the characters in Mark Twain's works there probably wasn't any of whom he was fonder than the one that went down the river with Huck Finn. It is true that this character is introduced as "Miss Watson's big nigger, named Jim." That was the Missouri vernacular of the day. But from there on to the end of the story Miss Watson's Jim is a warm human being, lovable and admirable. (34)

Now, Huckleberry Finn... is a great document in the progress of human tolerance and understanding. Huck begins by regarding Jim, the fugitive slave, very much as the juvenile delinquents of Little Rock regard the Negro today. Gradually, however, he discovers that Jim, despite the efforts of society to brutalize him, is a noble human being who deserves his protection, friendship, and respect. This theme of growing love is made clear throughout the book. (35)

In another vein, some defenders of Twain's racial sensitivities assign Jim's initial portrayal a more significant role than mere backdrop. The rubric of "performed ideology" frames Steven Mailloux's interpretation of Jim as he appears in the early "philosophical debates" with Huck. (36) Mailloux explains how a "literary text can take up the ideological rhetoric of its historical moment... and place it on a fictional stage." As "ideological drama," the literary text­Huckleberry Finn in this case­invites readers to become spectators and actors at a rhetorical performance. In fact, the success of the ideological drama depends upon the reader's participation: "The humor and often the ideological point of the novel's many staged arguments... rely upon the reader's ability to recognize patterns of false argumentation." Within the framework of rhetorical performances, then, Jim's minstrel scenes serve "as ideological critique[s] of white supremacy." In each case, however, the dominance of Jim's humanity over the racial discourse of white supremacy hinges upon the reader's recognition of the discrepancy between the two ideologies. (37)

The interpretive job that Mailloux does on the "French question" in chapter 14 exonerates the passage of any racial negativity. Huck's disdainful comment that "you can't learn a nigger to argue" renders the debate little more than a literary version of a minstrel dialogue unless readers recognize the superior rhetorician: "Of course, readers reject the racist slur as a rationalization. They know Huck gives up because he has lost the argument: it is precisely because Jim has learned to argue by imitating Huck that he reduces his teacher to silence. Far from demonstrating Jim's inferior knowledge, the debate dramatizes his argumentative superiority, and in doing so makes a serious ideological point through a rhetoric of humor." (38) The vigorous critical acumen with which Mailloux approaches the role played by Jim is illustrative of the interpretative tacks taken by academics. Most view Twain's depiction of Jim as an ironic attempt to transcend the very prejudices that dissidents accuse him of perpetuating.

Though there has been copious criticism of the Jim who shuffles his way across the pages of Huckleberry Finn's opening chapters, the Jim who darkens the closing chapters of the novel elicits even more (and more universally agreed­upon) disapprobation. Most see the closing sequence, which begins at Huck's encounter with Aunt Sally, as a reversal of any moral intention that the preceding chapters imply. The significance that Twain's audience has attached to the journey down the river­Jim's pursuit of freedom and Huck's gradual recognition of the slave's humanness­is rendered meaningless by the entrance of Tom Sawyer and his machinations to "free" Jim.

The particular offensiveness to blacks of the closing sequence of Huckleberry Finn results in part from expectations that Twain has built up during the raft ride down the river. As the two runaways drift down the Mississippi, Huck (along with the reader) watches Jim emerge as a man whose sense of dignity and self­respect dwarf the minstrel mask. No one can deny the manly indignation evinced by Jim when Huck attempts to convince him that he has only dreamed their separation during the night of the heavy fog. Huck himself is so struck by Jim's passion that he humbles himself "to a nigger" and "warn't ever sorry for it afterwards" (chap. 15).

From this point, the multidimensionality of Jim's personality erodes Huck's socialized attitudes about blacks. During the night, thinking that Huck is asleep, Jim vents the adult frustrations he does not expect Huck to understand or alleviate; he laments having to abandon his wife and two children: "Po' little Lizbeth! Po' little Johnny! It's might hard; I spec' I ain't ever gwyne to see you no mo', no mo"' (chap. 2.3). Berating himself for having struck his four­year old daughter, Elizabeth, in punishment for what he thought was blatant disobedience, Jim tells Huck of his remorse after discovering that the toddler had gone deaf without his knowledge. Through such poignant moments Huck learns, to his surprise, that Jim "cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their'n. It don't seem natural, but I reckon it's so" (chap. 23).

Finally, in the welcome absence of Pap, Jim becomes a surrogate father to Huck, allowing the boy to sleep when he should stand watch on the raft, giving him the affection his natural father did not, and making sure that the raft is stocked and hidden. Thus Twain allows Jim to blossom into a mature, complex human being whom Huck admires and respects. The fullness of character with which Twain imbues Jim compels Huck to "decide, forever, betwixt two things." The reader applauds Hucks' acceptance of damnation for helping Jim and affixes all expectations for the rest of the novel to this climactic moment.

Having thus tantalized readers with the prospect of harmonious relations between white and black, Twain seems to turn on his characters and his audience. Leo Marx, who mounted the best­known attack on the novel's ending in his essay "Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn," describes it as a glaring lapse "of moral vision" resulting from Twain's inability to "acknowledge the truth his novel contained." (39) Readers' discomfort with the "evasion" sequence results from discrepancies between the Jim and Huck who grow in stature on the raft and the impostors who submit to Tom. Fritz Oehschlaeger's "'Gwyne to Git Hung': The Conclusion of Huckleberry Finn" expresses the frustrations that many experience regarding the evasion:

The... shift in tone from one of high seriousness to one of low burlesque is so abrupt as to be almost chilling. Clemens has simply made the issues too serious for us to accept a return to the boyhood world of the novel's opening. We are asked to forget Huck's process of moral education, his growing awareness of Jim's value as a human being.

Similarly, we are asked to forget Jim's nobility, revealed to us repeatedly in the escape down the river. Instead, Jim becomes again the stereotyped, minstrel­show "nigger" of the novel's first section, a figure to be manipulated, tricked, and ridiculed by the boys. Perhaps even less acceptable is Clemens's apparent decision to allow Miss Watson a partial redemption through her death­bed freeing of Jim. At the end Jim is free and considers himself rich, and Huck is left to pursue further adventures in the Territory. [Yet] ... something in us longs for quite a different outcome, one that would allow Jim to retain his heroic stature and force Huck to live up to the decision that accompanies his tearing up of the letter to Miss Watson. (40)

By this view, Twain's apparent abandonment of Huck's reformation and Jim's quest for freedom constitutes an absolute betrayal, Consequently, any redemptive racial attitudes that Twain has displayed earlier are nullified; his final portrait of Jim appears sinister and malicious.

Scholars have attempted to read the evasion sequence in ways that would make it palatable by placing it in sync with the preceding chapters. In just such an attempt to render the last ten chapters less irksome, James M. Cox attacks the very thing that has led readers to deplore that last one­fourth­that is, the moral sentiment against which we measure Tom's actions. Our moral sentiment, explains Cox, (41) leads us to misconstrue Twain's intent and to declare the ending a failure. Twain does not, as most believe, lose courage and fail to carry through with his indictment of the racial attitudes of the Old South. On the contrary, the closing sequence returns the novel and Huck to Twain's true central meaning.

For thirty­one chapters Twain wages an attack upon conscience not upon the southern conscience, as we want to believe, but upon any conscience. According to Cox, "the deep wish which Huckleberry Finn embodies" is "the wish for freedom from any conscience." Huck flees conscience at every turn, making choices based on what is most comfortable. It is this adherence to the pleasure principle that defines Huck's identity and governs his actions toward Jim, not a racial enlightenment, as we would hope. The moment at which Huck forsakes the pleasure principle and of which we most approve marks the point at which his identity and Twain's central focus, according to Cox, are in the most jeopardy: "In the very act of choosing to go to hell he has surrendered to the notion of a principle of right and wrong. He has forsaken the world of pleasure to make a moral choice. Precisely here is where Huck is about to negate himself­where, with an act of positive virtue, he actually commits himself to play the role of Tom Sawyer which he has to assume in the closing section of the book." (42) Insofar as the concluding sections bring Huck back into line with Twain's determination to subvert conscience, it remains consistent with the preceding chapters. Given this, to declare Twain's ending a failure is to deny his actual thematic intent and to increase our discomfort with the concluding segments.

Cox's argument demonstrates the ingenious lengths to which scholars go to feel comfortable with the final chapters of Huck Finn. But the inadequacy of such academic ingenuities in meeting this and other challenges to the novel becomes clear when one considers that the issue remains "hot" enough to make it available for debate on prime­time television. (43) What scholars must realize is that no amount of interpretive acrobatics can mediate the actual matter of the closing sequence. Regardless of Twain's motivation or intent, Jim does deflate and climb back into the minstrel costume. His self­respect and manly pursuit of freedom bow subserviently before the childish pranks of an adolescent white boy.

Considering the perplexity of the evasion brings us back full circle to Huckleberry Finn's suitability for public schools. Given the powerlessness of highly discerning readers to resolve the novel in a way that unambiguously redeems Jim or Huck, how can students be expected to fare better with the novel's conclusion? Parents question the advisability of teaching to junior and senior high school students a text which requires such sophisticated interpretation in order for its moral statements to come clear. The teaching of such a text presumes a level of intellectual maturity not yet realized by secondary school students, particularly eighth­ and ninth­grade students who are in the inchoate stages of literary studies. Parents fear that the more obvious negative aspects of Jim's depiction may overshadow the more subtle uses to which they are put. Critics such as Mailloux point to the reader as the component necessary to obviate the racism inherent in, for example, the interchange between Aunt Sally and Huck. (44) But if an eighth­ or ninth­grader proves incapable of completing the process begun by Twain, then the ideological point is lost. This likely possibility causes parents to be hesitant about approving Huck Finn for the classroom.

Huck Finn apologists view the objection to the novel on the ground of students' cognitive immaturity as an underestimation of youngsters' abilities. In the third of his four­part series on the censorship of Huck Finn, (45) Hentoff boasts that the ability of children in 1982 to fathom Twain's subtleties is at least comparable to that of children who read the novel a century ago. "At 10, or 12, or 14, even with only the beginning ring of meaning," writes Hentoff, "any child who can read will not miss the doltishness and sheer meanness and great foolishness of most whites in the book, particularly in their attitudes toward blacks." (46) He continues, "Nor will the child miss the courage and invincible decency of the white boy and the black man on the river." While Hentoff's confidence in the American schoolchild is commendable, his enthusiasm reveals a naiveté about junior high school students' critical insight. As Cox's and Mailloux's articles show, the points of the novel are anything but "as big as barn doors." Therefore, the cognitive maturity of students and the grade­level placement of the novel are of grave importance.

That Huckleberry Finn brims with satire and irony is a truism of academic discourse. But a study conducted in 1983 to examine "the effects of reading Huckleberry Finn on the racial attitudes of ninth grade students" corroborates the contention that junior high school students lack the critical perception to successfully negotiate the satire present in the novel. According to the committee that directed the study, the collected data indicated "that the elements of satire which are crucial to an understanding of the novel go largely unobserved by students." (47) That approximately one­third of the group (those students who studied the novel as an instructional unit) regarded Huckleberry Finn as merely an adventure story "after several weeks of serious study" left the committee convinced "that many students are not yet ready to understand the novel on its more complex levels." Therefore, although not advising expulsion of the novel, the panel recommended its removal from the ninth­grade curriculum and placement in the eleventh­ or twelfth­grade syllabus:

This recommendation is made, not because the use of Huckleberry Finn promotes or furthers negative stereotyping­the preponderance of our data suggests that, if anything, it lessens such stereotyping­but because some of the literary objectives given as justification for the use of the book seem not to have been achieved. Given the degree and instances of irony and satire in the book, the difficult dialects and general reading level of the book, and the tendency of many students to read the book at the level of an adventure story, the committee believes, the novel requires more literary sophistication than can reasonably be expected from an average ninth grade student. (48)

Though the Penn State study does not support parents' calls for total removal of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum, it does validate their reservations about the presence of the work at the junior high level. Possibly a sufficiently mature audience is present in the eleventh­ and twelfth­grade classes of America, but it seems not to be available in the eighth, ninth, or even tenth grades.

The volatile combination of satire, irony, and questions of race underscores an additional important facet of the controversy: teacher ability and attitude. The position of the classroom teacher in the conflict over Huckleberry Finn is delicate: students not only look to teachers as intellectual mentors, but turn to them for emotional and social guidance as well. So in addition to ensuring that students traverse the scholarly territory that the curriculum requires, teachers must guarantee that students complete the journey with their emotional beings intact.

The tenuous status of race relations in the United States complicates the undertaking of such an instructional unit. Cox, despite his affection for the novel and his libertarian views, admits that were he "teaching an American literature course in Bedford Stuyvesant or Watts or North Philadelphia," he might choose Twain texts other than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (49) A situation as emotionally charged as the introduction of the word "nigger" into class discussion requires a sensitivity and perspicacity that parents are unconvinced a majority of teachers possess. Those who want the "classic" expelled dread the occurrence of incidents such as the one described by Hentoff on ABC'S "Nightline." (50) According to Hentoff, a teacher in Texas commenced her initial class discussion of the novel with the question "What is a nigger?" In response, the white students in the class looked around the room at the black kids. In addition to this type of ineptness, the lack of commitment to human equality on the part of some teachers looms large in the minds of would­be censors. The "inherent threat" of Huckleberry Finn is that in the hands of an unfit, uncommitted teacher it can become a tool of oppression and harmful indoctrination.

Assuming the inverse to be equally possible, a competent, racially accepting educator could transform the potential threat into a challenge. Huckleberry Finn presents the secondary teacher with a vehicle to effect powerful, positive interracial exchange among students. Though I have not taught Huckleberry Finn in a secondary school, I have taught Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which is "tainted" with the pejorative "nigger" as well as "nigger­lover," and which is also under fire from censors. Like Huck Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird treats a highly emotional racial episode. Different from Twain's novel, however, is the clear­cut use of "nigger­lover" and "nigger" by characters who intend the terms to be derogatory (except where Atticus Finch, a liberal lawyer, forbids his children to use them­an important exception). Set in a small, bigoted Alabama town during the Great Depression, the Pulitzer Prize­winning novel is narrated by Atticus's daughter, Scout, a precocious tomboy. Scout, along with her older brother Jem and playmate Dill, observes the horrors of racial prejudice as they are played out in the trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, wrongfully accused of rape by a white woman.

Over a four­year period in Austin, Texas, I introduced the novel to approximately five hundred public school ninth­graders. Each time I taught the four­week 'unit on To Kill a Mockingbird, the most difficult day of instruction involved the introduction of "nigger" (actually "nigger­lover") into class discussion. My rationale for forcing the word into active class discourse proceeded from my belief that students (black and white) could only face sensitive issues of race after they had achieved a certain emotional distance from the rhetoric of race. I thought (and became convinced over the years) that open confrontation in the controlled setting of the classroom could achieve that emotional distance.

Early in the novel, when another child calls Atticus, who has agreed to defend Robinson, a "nigger­lover," Scout picks a fight with him. When Atticus learns of the fray, Scout asks if he is a "nigger lover." Beautifully undercutting the malice of the phrase, Atticus responds, "Of course, I am. I try to love everybody." A discussion of this episode would constitute my first endeavor to ease my students into open dialogue about "the word" and its derivatives.

My opening query to each class­Why does Scout get into a fight at school?­was invariably answered with a paroxysm of silence. As the reality of racial discomfort and mistrust cast its shadow over the classroom, the tension would become almost palpable. Unable to utter the taboo word "nigger," students would be paralyzed, the whites by their social awareness of the moral injunction against it and the blacks by their heightened sensitivity to it. Slowly, torturously, the wall of silence would begin to crumble before students' timid attempts to approach the topic with euphemism. Finally, after some tense moments, one courageous adolescent would utter the word. As the class released an almost audible sigh of relief, the students and I would embark upon a lively and risk­taking exchange about race and its attendant complexities. The interracial understanding fostered by this careful, enlightened study of To Kill a Mockingbird can, I think, be achieved with a similar approach to Huckleberry Finn.

It must be understood, on the other hand, that the presence of incompetent, insensitive, or (sometimes unwittingly, sometimes purposefully) bigoted instructors in the public schools is no illusion. Black parents who entrust their children's well­being to such people run the risk of having their offspring traumatized and humiliated; white parents risk having their children inculcated with attitudes that run contrary to a belief in human rights and equality. The possibility of lowering black students' self­esteem and undermining their pride in their heritage is a substantial argument against sanctioning the novel's use, and the likelihood that Huckleberry Finn could encourage racial prejudice on the part of white students is a matter of comparable concern.

Though these qualms are legitimate and are partly supported by the Penn State study, other studies charged with the task of determining whether Huckleberry Finn causes, furthers, or ameliorates poor self­concept, racial shame, or negative racial stereotyping indicate that the novel's influence on a majority of students is positive. A 1972 study that measured the influence the novel had on the racial attitudes of black and white ninth­grade boys yielded only positive results. (51) Herbert Frankel, director of the study, concluded that significant changes in perceptions of blacks occurred for black and white students, and all shifts were of a positive nature. The data indicated that black adolescents' self­concepts were enhanced. Further, "black students tended to identify more strongly and more positively with other members of their race" as a result of having studied Huckleberry Finn. For white students, reading the novel "reduce[d] hostile or unfavorable feelings toward members of another race and increase[d] favorable feelings toward members of another race" (emphasis added). Students who read the novel under a teacher's guidance showed "Significantly greater positive change" than those students who read the novel on their own. (52) The Penn State study upholds this last conclusion, judging the novel "suitable for serious literary study by high school students":

Our data indicate that students who read the novel as part of an instructional unit demonstrated both a deeper sensitivity to the moral and psychological issues central to the novel (a number of which deal with issues of race) and a more positive attitude on matters calling for racial understanding and acceptance. These students were also able to interpret the novel with greater literary sophistication than those students who read the novel without instruction. Additionally, these students were significantly more accepting of contacts with Blacks than were the other students involved in the study. (53)

Based on these studies completed eleven years apart (I972 and 1983), it appears that in the right circumstances Huckleberry Finn can be taught without perpetuating negative racial attitudes in white students or undermining racial pride in black students.

Still, in the final analysis the concerns voiced by parents and other would­be censors of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are not wholly invalid. One has only to run a mental scan across the nation's news headlines to glean a portrait of the present state of American race relations. Such a glimpse betrays the ambivalence present in the status of blacks and their relations with whites. In "Breaking the Silence," a powerful statement on the plight of the "black underclass," Pete Hamill delineates the duality of the American black experience. Admitting the dismal reality of continued racist behavior, Hamill cites "the antibusing violence in liberal Boston, the Bernhard Goetz and Howard Beach cases in liberal New York, [and] a some places." (54) Then, turning to inroads forged toward equality, he mentions that "for the first time in American history, there is a substantial and expanding black middle class, [a] leading contender for the Democratic nomination for President is a black man," and mayors of eight American cities are black. Hamill's article points to a fundamental fissure in the American psyche when it comes to race. Further, these details suggest that the teaching of Twain's novel may not be the innocent pedagogical endeavor that we wish it to be.

When we move from the context into which we want to deposit Huckleberry Finn and consider the nature of the text and its creator, matter becomes even more entangled. Though devotees love to praise Huckleberry Finn as "a savage indictment of a society that accepted slavery as a way of life" (55) or "the deadliest satire ... ever written on ... the inequality of [the] races," (56) the truth is that neither novel nor its author has escaped ambivalence about racial matters.

First, the ambiguities of the novel are multiple. The characterization of Jim is a string of inconsistencies. At one point he is the superstitious darky; at another he is the indulgent surrogate father. On the one hand, his desire for freedom is unconquerable; on the other, he submits it to the ridiculous antics of a child. Further, while Jim flees from slavery and plots to steal his family out of bondage, most other slaves in the novel embody the romantic contentment with the "peculiar institution" that slaveholders tried to convince abolitionists all slaves felt.

Twain's equivocal attitude toward blacks extends beyond his fiction into his lifelong struggle with "the Negro question." In his autobiography Twain describes the complaisance with which he accepted slavery while growin g up. Leaving slaveholding Missouri seems to have had little effect on his racial outlook, because in 1853 he wrote home to his mother from New York, "I reckon I had better black my face, for in these Eastern states niggers are considerably better than white people." He served briefly as a Confederate soldier before heading west and never seemed to be morally discomfited by his defense of slavery. (57) Set over and against these unflattering details are Twain's advocacies for equality. In 1985 a letter proving that Twain had provided financial assistance to a black student at the Yale University Law School in 1885 was discovered and authenticated by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. In the letter Twain writes, 'We [whites] have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs, & we should pay for it." (58) He is also known to have teamed with Booker T. Washington in championing several black causes. (59)

The factor of racial uncertainty on the part of Twain, its manifestation in his best­loved piece, and its existence in American society should not be a barrier to Huckleberry Finn's admittance to the classroom. Instead, this should make it the pith of the American literature curriculum. The insolubility of the race question as regards Huckleberry Finn functions as a model of the fundamental racial ambiguity of the American mind­set. Active engagement with Twain's novel provides one method for students to confront their own deepest racial feelings and insecurities. Though the problems of racial perspective present in Huckleberry Finn may never be satisfactorily explained for censors or scholars, the consideration of them may have a practical, positive bearing on the manner in which America approaches race in the coming century.


1. Justin Kaplan, Born to Trouble: One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn, Center for the Book Viewpoint Series, no. 13 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 19 8 5) 10­11.

2. Lionel Trifling, Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Rinehart, 1948) v­xviii; reprinted in Norton Critical Edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 2nd ed., ed. Sculley Bradley et al. (New York: Norton, 1977) 318.

3. T. S. Eliot, Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (London: Cresset, 19 5 0) vii­xvi; reprinted in Norton Critical Edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 2nd ed., ed. Sculley Bradley et al. (New York: Norton, 1977) 328.

4. Leonard Buder, "'Huck Finn' Barred as Textbook by City," New York Times Sept. 1957: 1.

5. "Schools in Philadelphia Edit 'Huckleberry Finn,"' New York Times 17 Apr. 1963: 44.

6. "'Huckleberry Finn' Scored for References to 'Nigger,"' New York Times 22 Mar. 1967: 43.

7. "'HuckFinn' Not Required," New York Times, T5 Jan. 1969: 44.

8. Telephone interviews with Lois Fisher, New Trier High School librarian, and Eric Lair, New Trier School District assistant superintendent, 24 Mar. 1988. As of 2o April 1988, New Trier's current controversy over Huckleberry Finn had yet to be resolved.

9. John Wallace, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Adapted (Chicago: Wallace, 1984).

10. See Wallace's essay, "The Case against Huck Finn," in this volume.

11. Christopher Hitchchs, "American Notes," (London) Times Literary Supplement 9 Mar. 1985: 258.

12. Nicholas J. Karolides and Lee Burress, eds., Celebrating Censored Books (Racine, Wisc.: Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English, 1985) 6. This information is based on six national surveys of censorship pressures on the American public schools between 19 6 5 and 1982.

13. Most scholars express opinions on whether or not to ban Huckleberry Finn in a paragraph or two of an article that deals mainly with another topic. Shelley Fisher Fishkin has given the issues much more attention. In addition to authenticating a letter written by Mark Twain that indicates his nonracist views (see n. 59), Fishkin has debated the issue with John Wallace on "Freeman Reports" (C N N, 14 March 19 8 5).

14. Hitchens 2 5 8.

15. Allan B. Ballard, letter, New York Times 9 May 19 8 z.

16. "Finishing the Civil War: Huck Finn in Racist America," Young Spartacus (Summer 1982): 12.

17. Leslie Fiedler, "Huckleberry Finn: The Book We Love to Hate," Proteaus 1.2. (Fall 1984): 6.

18. Nat Hentoff, "Huck Finn and the Shortchanging of Black Kids," Village Voice 18 May 19 8 z.

19. Hentoff.

20. Kaplan 18.

2l. "Finishing the Civil War" 12.

22. Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (New York: Thunder's Month P, 1940) 268­69. At this point in his autobiography, Hughes discusses the furor caused by Carl Van Vechten's novel Nigger Heaven, published in 1926.

23. See David L. Smith's essay, "Huck, Jim, and American Racial Discourse," in this volume.

24. "Finishing the Civil War" 12..

25. Fiedler 5.

26. Again, see Smith's essay.

27. Fiedler 6; see also Smith's discussion of this passage.

28. Kaplan ib.

29. Frederick Woodard and Donnarae MacCann, "Huckleberry Finn and the Traditions of Blackface Minstrelsy," Interracial Books for Children Bulletin 15 ­ 1­2 (1984): 4­13; reprinted in The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism, 2nd ed., ed. Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1985) 75­103.

30. Ralph Ellison, "Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke," Partisan Review 15 (Spring 1958): 212­2.2; reprinted in Ellison's Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 19 64) 45 ­ 59.

31. Woodard and MacCann 76­77.

32. Mark Twain, quoted in Woodard and MacCann 76 (emphasis added).

33. Woodard and MacCann 79. See also the Woodard and MacCann essay "Minstrel Shackles and Nineteenth­Century 'Liberality' in Huckleberry Finn," in this volume.

34. "Huck Finn's Friend Jim," editorial, New York Times 13 Sept. 1957: 22.

35. Hoxie N. Fairchild, letter, New York Times, 14 Sept. 19 5 7: 18

36. Steven Mailloux, "Reading Huckleberry Finn: The Rhetoric of Performed Ideology," New Essays on "Huckleberry Finn," ed. Louis J. Budd (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge UP, 198 5) 107­3 3. For a defense of the early Jim as an example of Twains strategy to "elaborate [racial stereotypes] in order to undermine them," see David Smith's essay.

37. Mailloux's discussion of "rhetorical performances" in Huckleberry Finn bears kinship to M. M. Bakhtin's discussion of the function of heteroglossia in the comic novel. In "Discourse on the Novel," Bakhtin identifies two features that characterize "the incorporation of heteroglossia and its stylistic utilization" in the comic novel. First, the comic novel incorporates a "multiplicity of languages and verbal­ideological belief systems," and for the most part these languages are not posited in particular characters, but they can be. Second, "the incorporated languages and socio­ideological belief systems... are unmasked and destroyed as something false, hypocritical, greedy, limited, narrowly rationalistic, inadequate to reality." Huckleberry Finn seems to me to embody much of what Bakhtin says regarding heteroglossia in the comic novel. The multiplicity of languages is clearly recognizable in the lower­class vernacular of Huck and Pap, the exaggerated slave dialect of Jim, the southern genteel tradition, the romantic diction of Scott and Dumas as it has been gleaned by Tom and filtered through Huck, and several other dialects. Twain himself acknowledges the painstaking attention he paid to language in the novel. Clearly, through his play with the "posited author" Huck, Twain's motive is to unmask and destroy various socioideological belief systems that are represented by language. So what Mailloux refers to as rhetorical performance Bakhtin identifies as the heteroglossia struggle. Thus Jim's successful appropriation of Huck's argumentative strategy dismantles the hegemony of white supremacy discourse present as Huck's language. M. M. Bakhtin, "Discourse in the Novel," trans. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson, in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1981) 310­15.

3 8. Mailloux 1117.

3 9. Leo Marx, "Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn," American Scholar 2.2­­4 (1953): 423­4o; reprinted in Norton Critical Edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 2nd ed., ed. Sculley Bradley et al. (New York: Norton, 1977) 349.

40. Fritz Oelschlaeger, "'Gwyne to Git Hung': The Conclusion of Huckleberry Finn," in One Hundred Ycars of "Huckleberry Finn" ' ­ The Boy, His Book and American Culture, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer and J. Donald Crowley (Columbia, Mo.: U of Missouri P, 1985) 117.

41. James M. Cox, Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 19 66); reprinted as "The Uncomfortable Ending of Huckleberry Finn," in the Norton Critical Edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 2nd ed., ed. Sculley Bradley et al. (New York: Norton, 1977) 350­59. Though he ignores Jim and his aspiration for freedom in Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor, in a more recent, related article, "A Hard Book to Take," Cox returns to the evasion sequence and treats Jim's freedom in particular and the concept of freedom in general. He contends that Twain had recognized "the national he [myth] of freedom" and that the closing movement of Huckleberry Finn dramatizes Twain's realization that Jim is not and never will be truly free. Further, no one, black or white, is or will be free, elaborates Cox, "despite the fictions of history and the Thirteenth Amendment." See "A Hard Book to Take," in One Hundred Years of "Huckleberry Finn'­ The Boy', His Book and American Culture, ed. Robert Sattelmeyer and J. Donald Crowley (Columbia, Mo.: U of Missouri P, 198 5) 386­403.

42. Cox, Mark Twain 356. [See also Charles Nilon's defense of the concluding chapters of Huckleberry Finn in his essay, "The Ending of Huckleberry Finn: 'Freeing the Free Negro,"' in this Volume­ E D.]

43. "Huckleberry Finn: Literature or Racist Trash?" ABC "Nightline," 4 Feb. 1985.

44. Mailloux 117.

45. Hentoff.

46. Hentoff.

47. The Effects of Reading "Huckleberry Finn" on the Racial Attitudes of Ninth Grade Students, a cooperative study of the State College Area School District and the Fonim on Black Affairs of Pennsylvania State University (State College, Pa., 19 8 3) 12.

48. The Effects of Reading "Huckleberry Finn" 22.

49. Cox, Mark Twain 388.

5o. "Huckleberry Finn: Literature or Racist Trash>"

51. Herbert Lewis Frankel, "The Effects of Reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the Racial Attitudes of Selected Ninth Grade Boys," diss. Temple U, May 1971, 203­4.

52. Frankel z03­4.

53. The Effects of Reading "Huckleberry Finn" 11.

54. Pete Hamill, "Breaking the Silence," Esquire 109.3 (1988): 92­9 3

55. Kaplan 18.

56. "Huck Finn's Friend Jim," p. 22.

57. See Bernard Bell's essay, "Twain's 'Nigger' Jim: The Tragic Face behind the Minstrel Mask," in this volume.

58. Will Havgood, "Twain Letter Revives Old Question: Detractors Say They Still Think 'Huck Finn' Has Racist Taint," Boston Globe 15 Mar. 1985: 3.

59. Jacqueline James Goodwin, "Booker T. Washington and Twain as a Team," letter, New York Times 24 Apr. 1985: A22.

Racism and Huckleberry Finn:
Censorship, Dialogue, and Change

Allen Webb

(English Journal, Nov. 1993, Reprinted with revision in Literature and Lives, NCTE Press, 2001)

A masterpiece. -T.S. Elliot

One of the worldıs great books and one of the central documents of American culture.- Lionel Trilling

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn... There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since. -Ernest Hemingway

For the past forty years, black families have trekked to schools in numerous districts throughout the country to say, ³This book is not good for our children,² only to be turned away by insensitive and often unwittingly racist teachers and administrators who respond, ³This book is a classic.² -John H. Wallace


Huckleberry Finn may be the most exalted single work of American literature. Praised by our best known critics and writers, the novel is enshrined at the center of the American literature curriculum. According to Arthur Applebee the work is second only to Shakespeare in the frequency it appears in the classroom and is required in 70% of public high schools and 76% of parochial high schools. The most taught novel, the most taught long work, and the most taught piece of American literature, Huckleberry Finn is a staple from junior high (where eleven chapters are included in the Junior Great Books program) to graduate school. Written in a now vanished dialect, told from the point of view of a runaway fourteen-year-old, the novel conglomerates melodramatic boyhood adventure, farcical low comedy, and pointed social satire. Yet at its center is a relationship between a white boy and an escaped slave, an association freighted with the tragedy and the possibility of American history. Despite a social order set against interracial communication and respect, Huck develops a comradeship with Jim for which he is willing­against all he has been taught­to risk his soul.

Despite the novelıs sanctified place and overtly anti-racist message, since school desegregation in the 1950s, black Americans have raised objections to Huckleberry Finn and its effect on their children. Linking their complaints with the efforts of other groups to influence the curriculum, we English teachers have seen the issue as one of censorship, defending the novel and our right to teach it. In so doing we have been properly concerned: the freedom of English teachers to design and implement curriculum must be protected as censorship undermines the creation of an informed citizenry able to make critical judgments between competing ideas. Yet, considering the objections to Huckleberry Finn only in terms of freedom and censorship doesnıt resolve potentially divisive situations that can arise in either high school or college settings. For this we need to listen to objections raised to the novel and reconsider the process of teaching it. Entering into a dialogue with those that have objections to Huckleberry Finn can help us think the dynamics of race in literature courses and about the way literature depicts, interrogates, and affirms our national culture and history.

A ³communication shut-down² is the way I would describe what happened in November 1991 in a largely white suburb just next door to where I train English teachers. African American student and parent concerns during the teaching of Huckleberry Finn led to a decision to immediately remove the text from the classroom in the districtıs two high schools. Required to read a brief statement to their students stating that the book had been withdrawn, teachers were prohibited from further discussion of Huckleberry Finn or reasons for its removal until ³more sensitive² approaches were found. Local television and newspaper reporters learned of the story, and English teachers, students, parents, and administrators suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves at the center of a difficult and very public controversy. An impassioned meeting at the high school made the nightly news. A subsequent meeting with the school board was broadcast on the cable access channel. Expressing sentiments that might be echoed by many across the country, these teachers felt that they had been teaching appropriately all along. One teacher told the local paper, ³We have shown a concerted effort to express what we call sensitivity,² and ³we feel a very strong kinship to this book because of what we believe it stands for² (Kalamazoo Gazette, 11/26/91). Upset that their freedom in the classroom was impinged, these teachers were also confused and pained that parents should find the text and their methods insensitive.

On the other side black students who raised concerns with teachers about the book felt they had not been listened to, and black parents concluded that a tight-knit group of narrow-minded teachers had shut out and demeaned their legitimate concerns. Some white students were angry that the complaints of the black students meant they couldnıt finish reading the book. Some black students felt that long friendships with white students were in jeopardy. In sum, parents were angry with teachers, teachers felt threatened and misunderstood, administrators went in various directions but failed to follow policies already in place, and students were alienated from the school and from one another. In the following year the novel was reinstated, but to this day teachers remain understandably nervous about using it, unclear as to why blacks object to it, and uncertain just how it should best be taught. As with many similar incidents that have occurred again and again around the country, this controversy over Huckleberry Finn only exacerbated problems of interracial communication and respect.

We can and must do better. Doing better begins with English teachers at all levels taking a careful look at the complex racial issues raised by the novel and an active listening to the views of African Americans, teachers, scholars, writers, parents, and students. That Huckleberry Finn draws the attention of black families should not be a surprise. Since no text by a black‹or any other minority group member for that matter‹has yet to make it to the list of most frequently taught works (according to Applebeeıs research), Huckleberry Finn has a peculiar visibility. The novel remains the only one of the most taught works in high school to treat slavery, to represent a black dialect, and to have a significant role for an African American character. The length of the novel, the demands it places on instructional time, its centrality in the curriculum augment its prominence. Add to this the presence in the novel of the most powerful racial epithet in English‹the word appears 213 times‹and it is evident why Huckleberry Finn legitimately concerns African American parents sending their children into racially mixed classrooms.

Huckleberry Finn has also consistently attracted the attention of prominent black scholars and writers who, since the 1950ıs, have thought carefully about the work, its cultural contexts, and its role in the curriculum. We are fortunate to have much of their analysis readily available in a paperback volume entitled Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn (Durham: Duke UP, 1992). Every contributor is concerned with the role of Huckleberry Finn in the classroom; most are professors and teachers at leading universities, some have high school experience. The diverse and divergent Cultural Studies essays in Satire and Evasion demonstrate the complexity of Twainıs novel and the racial issues it raises. In addition to the articles, Satire and Evasion contains an annotated bibliography on issues of race, the novel, and the classroom. The collection begins with an essay by John H. Wallace, the black school administrator at Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax Virginia who played a prominent role in the debates over the novel in the early 1980ıs. Wallaceıs essay is followed by others that take significantly different and more subtle positions, but most contributors agree on several key points.

First, they make a persuasive case that Twainıs depiction of Jim owes much to the popular nineteenth-century black-face minstrel show where white actors darkened their skin to the color of coal to render comic burlesques of African American speech and manners. This insight is not entirely new: more than fifty years ago Ralph Ellison wrote that ³Twain fitted Jim into the outlines of the minstrel tradition, and it is from behind this stereotype mask that we see Jimıs dignity and human capacity‹and Twainıs complexity‹emerge² (65). While Ellison noted Twainıs talent, he remarked on a fundamental ambivalence in Jimıs portrayal that justified the discomfort of the ³Negro² reader. He found Jim ³a white manıs inadequate portrait of a slave² (72). (Ellisonıs essay ³Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,² frequently referred to in Satire and Evasion, is found in its entirety in Shadow and Act, New York: Signet, 1964, 61-73). Satire or Evasion considerably elaborates Ellisonıs remarks. The contributors offer significant evidence that Twain himself was an avid fan of the black-face minstrelsy. Bernard Bell, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, quotes from one of Twainıs letters: ³The minstrel used a very broad Negro dialect; he used it competently and with easy facility and it was funny ‹delightfully and satisfyingly funny² (128). When the shows appeared to be dying out in the early twentieth century Bell points out that Twain lamented the loss of ³the real nigger show‹the genuine nigger show, the extravagant nigger show‹the show which to me has no peer and whose peer has not arrived² (127).

As his affection for the minstrel show indicates, and the contributors point out, Twainıs personal attitudes toward blacks were contradictory. His father and uncle owned slaves, yet his wife was the daughter of a prominent abolitionist. He fought briefly with the confederate army, yet later in life paid a black studentıs way through Yale Law School. Though he protested against lynching and discrimination, he loved minstrel shows and ³nigger jokes.² In their essay Frederick Woodward and Donnarae MacCann, a professor and a graduate student at the University of Iowa, argue that Twainıs affection for the minstrel show is fundamental to the portrayal of Jim, ³The swaggering buffoonery of the minstrel clown is represented early in the novel when Jim awakes and finds his hat in a tree (one of Tomıs tricks), and then concocts a tale about witches and the devil² (145). They argue that: The Œstage Negroısı typical banter about wife troubles, profit making, spooks, and formal education is echoed in episodes in Huckleberry Finn, and their inclusion can be traced to a period when Twain was in the midst of planning a new tour of stage readings. Jim gives his impression of ŒKing Sollermunı and his harem in a minstrel-like repartee (chap. 14) and his confusion about stock market profits is seen in a farcical account of how Jimıs stock‹his cow­failed to increase his fourteen dollar fortune when he Œtuck to specalatınıı (chap. 8). Throughout the novel Jim is stupefied by information that Huck shares with him, as when they discuss Louis XVIıs Œlittle boy the dolphin.ı (145) Several scholars in Satire and Evasion point out that in the sequels that Twain wrote to Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer Abroad and the unfinished Tom Sawyerıs Conspiracy) Jim also appears as ³the patient simpleton² and ³Huck and Tom amuse themselves while risking Jimıs dignity and even his life² (152). In this view even the affection Huck and the reader feel for Jim fits with the minstrel tradition where the comic black characters are congenial and non-threatening.

While a couple of the contributors to Satire or Evasion develop complex explanations of how the end of the novel serves as ³Twainıs satire on the extremes to which the defeated Confederacy went to keep the black population enslaved² (213), for the most part these African American scholars and teachers are profoundly disappointed with Huck Finnıs final chapters. Although Jim runs away early on in the book, his independence is downplayed because he never makes his own way to freedom; it is Miss Watsonıs benevolence rather than Jimıs intelligence or courage that gain him his liberty. Further, the believability of the deus ex machina freeing of Jim depends on an unsustainably innocent view of racial relations. Speaking of the public knowledge that Jim is suspected of killing Huck, writer and English professor Julius Lester comments, ³Yet we are now to believe that an old white lady would free a black slave suspected of murdering a white child. White people may want to believe such fairy tales about themselves, but blacks know better² (203).

In examining the conclusion of the novel these scholars are troubled by the way that the developing relationship between Jim and Huck abruptly seems to loose its meaning as Huck accedes to Tom Sawyerıs cruel and senseless manipulations. Rhett Jones, an English professor at Rutgers, writes: ³The high adventures of the middle chapters, Huckıs admiration of Jim, Jimıs own strong self-confidence, and the slaveıs willingness to protect and guide Huck are all, in some sense, rendered meaningless by the closing chapters, in which Twain turns Jim over to two white boys on a lark² (186). Jones views Huckıs failure to speak up, his only protest being to compare stealing ³a nigger² to ³a watermelon, or a Sunday school book², as Huck finally rejecting Jimıs humanity. He points out that Huck in the closing paragraph is careful to tell the reader all about Tom and himself, including Aunt Sallyıs plans to adopt him. But the reader who is interested in learning what Jim intends to do, how he intends to rejoin his family, and what plans he has for freeing them is left in the dark when Huck flatly concludes, ŒThere ainıt nothing more to write about.ı Huck is not interested in the fate of Jim ‹much less that of his family‹nor is Tom; nor, evidently, was Twain. (190) Bernard Bell puts it simply: ³Twain‹nostalgically and metaphorically-- sells Jim down river for laughs at the end² (138). Seen from the point of view of some of these scholars even the most cherished aspects of the book begin to appear ambiguous, compromised. Focusing on the portrayal of Jim in the latter part of the book, particularly the testimony of the doctor who recaptures Jim after Jim has risked freedom to stand by the injured Tom, Julius Lester comments: It is a picture of the only kind of black that whites have every truly liked‹faithful, tending sick whites, not speaking, not causing trouble, and totally passive. He is the archetypal Œgood nigger,ı who lacks self-respect, dignity, and a sense of self separate from the one whites what him to have. A century of white readers have accepted this characterization because it permits their own Œhumanityı to shine through with more luster.ı (203)

Some of the scholars are even critical of Huckıs reasoning when he decides to ³go to hell² for Jim. Jones points out that while Huck considers ³Jimıs love for him, Jimıs humanity, and, most important, the ways in which Jim has served Huck², Huck ³concludes that Jim has done a great deal for him but in none of his reflections does he consider Jimıs own needs, much less those of his wife and children² (188). Shelly Fisher Fishkin puts forward a well publicized argument in Was Huck Black: Mark Twain and African American Voices (New York: Oxford UP, 1993) that Twain patterned Huckıs speech on that of black children thus suggesting a close interrelationship between racial identities in the novel. Her position is anticipated in Satire and Evasion by Arnold Rampersand, Professor of English at Princeton, who makes the case that Huck Finn, with its stress on folk culture, on dialect, and on American humor, can be seen to be ³near the fountainhead² for African American writers such as Hughes, Hurston, Ellison, and Walker. Rampersand explores issues of alienation in the novel, comparing Twain to Wright, Baldwin, and Morrison, yet he argues that the major compromise of the novel is not the ending, but that Jim never gains the intellectual complexity of Huck; never becomes a figure of disruptive alienation, nor does he even seem capable of learning this from Huck. ³Assuredly Twain knew that Huckıs attitude could be contagious, and that blacks had more reason than whites to be alienated and angry² (226), Rampersand writes. Consequently despite the close relationship Huck and Jim develop on the raft­and the possibility that Huckıs own language may owe something to black dialect­their roles and human possibilities are kept irresolutely separate and unequal.

In her study of American fiction (Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992) Toni Morrison‹winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her own novel about slavery, Beloved‹goes farther in criticizing Huckleberry Finn than the contributors to Satire and Evasion. Morrison believes that in the novel there is a close ³interdependence of slavery and freedom, of Huckıs growth and Jimıs serviceability within it, and even of Mark Twainıs inability to continue, to explore the journey into free territory² (55). She is struck by two things in the novel: ³the apparently limitless store of love and compassion the black man has for his white friend and white masters; and his assumption that the whites are indeed what they say they are, superior and adult² (56). According to Morrison, Jim permits his persecutors to torment him, humiliate him, and responds to the torment and humiliation with boundless love. The humiliation comes after we have experienced Jim as an adult, a caring father and a sensitive man. If Jim had been a white ex-convict befriended by Huck, the ending could not have been imagined or written. (56) What is above all disturbing about the novel, Morrison argues, is not its portrayal of Jim, ³but what Mark Twain, Huck, and especially Tom need from him.²(57) Rather than merely a white manıs limited portrait of a slave, the novel demonstrates the inadequacy of Euro-American utopian aspirations; Morrison says Huck Finn ³simulates and describes the parasitic nature of white freedom² (57). In her reading, then, the American dream of freedom may well be embodied in Huck and Jimıs time on the river, but if so then that very dream itself is fundamentally flawed, resting on a shedding of social responsibility and a failure to examine relations of subservience.

The racial problematics of Huckleberry Finn are partly ³corrected² in the 1994 Hollywood film version. The film shuns the complexities of irony and satire that make understanding the novel difficult. All points of view are simply and directly argued, offending passages are cut away. All 213 repetitions of the racial epithet are simply eliminated. The Widow Douglas espouses an explicitly abolitionist position. Above all, Jim is a far stronger character. His superstitiousness becomes a self-conscious put-on, and rather than being frightened of Huck and thinking him a ghost when they meet on Jackson Island, it is Jim that surprises and frightens Huck. Running away with a plan and a map, Jim exercises planning and foresight. Still ridiculed by being dressed up as an ³African² by the Duke and King, Jim is for the most part more articulate: he directly argues for the elimination of slavery. Also enhancing the depiction of Jim is the filmıs elimination of Tom Sawyer. Without Tom, the scene in the second chapter where Jim is mocked by stealing his hat disappears. The problematic final eleven chapters of the novel­where Jim is a helpless and gullible figure for Tomıs scheming­are simply done away with. By making Huck (instead of Tom, as in the novel) the injured boy that Jim must save, the climax of the film becomes a reciprocating act of friendship, rather than a deus ex machine revelation that Jim has all along been free. Although far from examining slavery from an African American perspective or telling its full horror, the film does add scenes of a plantation with a cruel overseer whipping slaves, Jim among them. Huck views this brutality, consciously examines his own complicity in the system of racial inequality, explicitly and determinedly rejects slavery as an institution, and makes a personal apology for his own complicity with slavery to Jim. None of this is in Twainıs novel. Rather than serving as a contemporary testament to Twainıs greatness, the radically revised film simply points to significant problems with the text. After watching the film with my school age son, I had a troubling and, for an English teacher, iconoclastic thought: might this Hollywood production be more effective with students than the novel itself?

My own experience with students in the classroom would seem to verify the observation that oneıs cultural background influences oneıs reaction to the novel. Recently I taught Huckleberry Finn in two classes with racially different student populations and had clearly divergent results. The first class was in the fall, a college-level Black American Literature class with a Cultural Studies approach to the theme of slavery. The class included a wide range of primary and secondary material from the seventeenth century to the present. We studied depictions of slavery by black authors such as Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglas, Linda Brent, Nat Turner, Langston Hughes, Ishmail Reed, and Toni Morrison and white authors Aphra Behn, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Caroline Lee Hentz, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain. We viewed segments of ³Roots² and read historical essays (including chapters from Howard Zinnıs A Peopleıs History)and contemporary studies about slavery (see appendix for list of materials). The course enrollment was 50% African Americans and 50% white students, from Detroit and medium size towns through out Michigan.

Given the historical and thematic integration of the course, each new text we read was examined in light of what we already knew, and, simultaneously, the new texts lead us to fundamentally rethink our previous reading. For example, it wasnıt until after reading Frederick Douglas, Linda Brent, and Nat Turner that my students, both white and black, were able to fully recognize the stereotyping in Uncle Tomıs Cabin. Stoweıs black characters appeared as stock figures in a white abolitionist imagination only after coming to know the intellectually questing Douglass, the trapped and emotionally conflicted Brent, and the violent and unrepentant Turner. Focusing on an historical theme and putting the texts next to each other created a Cultural Studies experience that encouraged students to make sophisticated judgments, write complex papers, and engage in increasingly meaningful discussions. After reading and discussing Huckleberry Finn in the context of this class my African American college students from freshman to seniors‹many of them planning to become teachers themselves‹were concerned about the use of Huckleberry Finn in the high school, an institution they themselves had only recently left. Some of these students talked about their own experience as the only or nearly the only African American student in an otherwise white classroom. In this situation they resented being turning to as experts by their white teachers, and they were uncomfortable being stared at by their fellow students. One of the brightest and most outspoken students­a popular college Junior and an actor who had done stage appearances as Malcolm X­spoke of how as a high school sophomore he had read Huckleberry Finn, felt demeaned and angry in the process, and yet considered himself so isolated by his situation as the only black person in the classroom that he was unable to share his reaction even privately with his teacher. What does it tell us about the challenge we teachers face in attempting to teach the novel that such a student, in this case the son of two college professors, lacked confidence to raise the issue?

I read several passages of the book aloud to the class to set up a discussion. One of the passages was the paragraph where Tom and Huck trick Jim in the second chapter. In this paragraph the epithet occurs seven times. Although I read the passage gently and as ³sensitively² as I could, it was clear that hearing the word come out of my mouth made my African American college students bristle. One African American student (who was, in fact, of a mixed racial background and thus particularly acute on the question) was quite direct with me in the discussion afterwards. He pointed out that while this word may be used by blacks with other blacks, it simply must not be used by whites. In his opinion while a black teacher might be able to read Huckleberry Finn aloud, a white teacher, no matter how ³sympathetic,² simply could not read the work aloud without offending black students.

Still trying to understand the issue of Huckleberry Finn in the classroom, the following semester I again taught the novel, this time in a literature teaching methods class for fifth-year English majors who themselves would soon be student teachers in high school and middle school language arts classrooms. In addition to reading Huckleberry Finn we read Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, Linda Brent, and several of the essays from Satire and Evasion. In contrast with the African American literature class, nearly all the students in this methods class are of Euro-American background (as are 98% of all the education students at our university). This particular term there was one African American student. She told me after the course was over that the only day that she really felt completely comfortable in the room was the day that we had a black professor‹and eight black students from my course in the fall‹come to join us for a discussion of the novel. Simply having more people of color in the class and listening to their point of view had a powerful impact on all the students. Up until that day all of the white students were confident that they would be able to teach Huckleberry Finn in appropriate and sensitive ways; after that day although most of them decided that they would teach the novel, their final projects indicated that they realized it would be a complex task indeed.

Those who still want to teach Huckleberry Finn after reading this chapter and exploring the perspectives offered by Satire and Evasion can marshal impressive arguments for their cause, not the least of which is the importance of having students examine the issue for themselves. In literature courses we are sometimes so busy trying to ³cover all the material² or ³expose² our students to ³great literature² that we fail to take the time to focus in, develop connections between works and contexts, and explore the relevance of what we read to the present. It is crystal clear to me that Huckleberry Finn should not be taught in a curriculum that simply showcases literary works without developing student skills at challenging the classics and thinking critically about literature, history, politics, and language. In other words, Huckleberry Finn should not be taught simply within a New Critical perspective. To ethically teach this novel involves entering into a response-based Cultural Studies approach that, at a minimum, requires: 1) Teaching Huckleberry Finn in a way that is sensitive to the racial makeup and dynamics of the classroom. 2) Openly addressing the presence of the racial epithet in the text and developing a strategy for use or avoidance of the term in the classroom. 3) Along with reading the book, examining objections to the Twainıs portrayal of African Americans and texts about slavery written by black authors. (See appendix.) 4) Informing the parents of high school age students that the text will be used and offering intellectually meaningful alternative assignments when these students or parents are uncomfortable with the novel.

Several of these points need clarification. For example, the dynamics of teaching Huckleberry Finn differ considerably from classroom to classroom, based on the race of the teacher and the proportion of minority students in the classroom, as well as on local social, cultural, and political factors. Talking across racial lines about questions of race always carries emotional impact in high school or college. The issues require a sensitivity and intellectual maturity from students that is not ordinary found below the eleventh grade. Teachers and students who undertake to read Huck Finn must be committed to respecting and learning from minority views, yet I do not recommend that a classroom vote or even a consensus process be used to decide whether or not Huckleberry Finn should be read. This difficult decision should be that of the teacher, letting students decide may put unfair pressure on those students who might object to reading the work, alienating them from their classmates.

The racial make-up of the classroom is a complex factor in teaching Huckleberry Finn that requires further consideration. While we might wish that fifty years after Brown vs. Board of Education classrooms without black students would be increasingly rare, a de facto racial segregation is still the norm in many of Americaıs suburbs, rural areas, and in many private schools. Even in racially mixed urban schools tracking often leads to racially segregated classrooms. And universities are often just as segregated as the public schools, if not more so. In a classroom without African Americans or other students of color, teachers often mistakenly believe that they are ³off the hook² and need not deal with racial issues. As the country and the world become increasingly interrelated and as the current white majority in this country becomes a minority in the twenty-first century, it will, however, be all the more imperative for white students to learn a multicultural literature and history and to participate in Cultural Studies curriculums. Indeed, a classroom without African Americans presents particular difficulties for the teacher and students reading Huckleberry Finn. Lacking black voices it will be difficult for ³sympathy² or ³understanding² to be more than superficial. Issues of race may be treated at a safe though somewhat uncomfortable intellectual distance: ³I think that they would think...² ³If I were black I would feel...² In a classroom without blacks some students may seek to relieve the tension that a discussion of race brings by making supposedly funny, but actually inappropriate racial remarks. A white teacher in this situation needs to make it clear from the outset that such remarks are not acceptable whether or not blacks are present to hear them. Students and parents in such contexts may resent any time spent on racial questions or on black history and culture as ³too much² time, yet for these students more time is necessary to understanding the literature and prepare for democratic citizenship. Inviting black speakers to the class, whatever their viewpoint, is especially important.

It is relatively easy for white teachers to argue for the importance of multicultural perspectives and racial understanding, while teachers of color, black or otherwise, attempting the same pedagogy may be perceived as ³hypersensitive,² ³activist,² or be accused of ³reverse racism.² When issues of race come up in classes where students of color constitute a small minority, these students will sense, often accurately, that they are being singled out, that the other students are looking at them, waiting for a reaction. In a letter to the New York Times Allan Ballard describes his experience in a predominately white junior high school in Philadelphia in the 195Os:

I can still recall the anger I felt as my white classmates read aloud the word ³nigger.² In fact, as I write this letter I am getting angry all over again. I wanted to sink into my seat. Some of the whites snickered, others giggled. I can recall nothing of the literary merits of this work that you term ³the greatest of all American novels.² I only recall the sense of relief I felt when I would flip ahead a few pages and see that the word ³nigger² would not be read that hour. (Allan B Ballard, in Satire or Evasion, 29)

Non-black teachers need to understand that it may be difficult for black students, even the most able, to express their reservations or concerns about matters of race to their teacher. Silent refusal to read the novel, distracting comments or behavior, an excess of humor in the classroom by students asked to read Huckleberry Finn should be seen by teachers not as student insubordination or narrow-mindedness but as inchoate expressions of resistance to a possibly inappropriate curriculum or pedagogy.

Since a special burden falls on them, African American students have a right to expect that they will be consulted in advance of reading and discussing the novel. Particularly if the teacher is Euro-American, it is important that minority students know that their teacher is aware of their position. Minority students can be told that when they write or participate in discussion that they can choose to either speak ³just as person² or, if they choose to, identify their viewpoint with that of other African Americans. In a classroom where half or more of the students are black, African American students are less likely to feel isolated. Yet in these classrooms also teachers still need to find ways to affirm student voices and facilitate communicate between racial groups. Small group discussion plays a particularly important role in this classroom. Such groups will probably be more racially mixed if students are assigned by ³counting off², though group self-selection may be important in helping to build comfort level and confidence. Unless their purposes are made explicit, teachers should avoid overtly separating groups by race.

As a white teacher with about half African American students, I observe an evolution in class discussion. In the first weeks the majority of large group discussion volunteers are often white. As we work with small groups, as I show an interest in listening to minority perspectives, as black teachers and colleagues visit my classroom, and as I invite non-volunteers to participate, a more balanced class discussion evolves. African American­or any other minority­voices are not automatically affirmed just because African American students are present in the classroom. Since African American or minority culture is not the focus of academic attention in most schools or universities‹even institutions with a majority of ³minority² students‹it is not a fair for teachers to assume that these students know ³their² history or literature. Thus it may be just as important for students in a class with a larger percentage of black students, for example, to acquaint themselves with complimentary background materials from African American perspectives.

In addition to carefully considering the racial dynamics of the classroom, in reading Huckleberry Finn it is important to recognize the power of language, in particular racial epithets. Teachers make a mistake when they excuse Twainıs use of the term on the grounds that it was accepted in his time. All of the scholars I have read on the subject agree with professor David L. Smith that, ³Even when Twain was writing his book, ³nigger² was universally recognized as an insulting, demeaning word² (Satire and Evasion, 107). Peaches Henry, former high school teacher and graduate student at Columbia University, describes the history and politics of the word:

To dismiss the wordıs recurrence in the work as an accurate rendition of nineteenth-century American linguistic conventions denies what every black person knows: far more than a synonym for slave, ³nigger² signifies a concept. It conjures centuries of specifically black degradation and humiliation during which the family was disintegrated, education was denied, manhood was trapped within a forced perpetual puerilism, and womanhood was destroyed by concubinage. If one grants that Twain substituted ³nigger² for ³slave,² the implications of the word do not improve; ³nigger² denotes the black man as a commodity, as chattel... ³Nigger² encapsulates the decades of oppression that followed emancipation. ŒIt means not only racist terror and lynch mobs but that victims Œdeserve itı.ı Outside Central High in Little Rock in 1954 it was emblazoned across placards; and across the South throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s it was screamed by angry mobs.... So to impute blackıs abhorrence of Œniggerı to hypersensitivity compounds injustice with callousness and signals a refusal to acknowledge that the connotations of Œthat wordı generate a cultural discomfort that blacks share with no other racial group. (31)

Henry believes that in teaching texts such as Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird the word should be ³forced² ³into active class discourse² in a controlled classroom setting because in her experience ³students (black or white) could only face sensitive issues of race after they had achieved a certain emotional distance from the rhetoric of race² (41). She describes her experience with ninth graders: Unable to utter the taboo word Œnigger,ı students would be paralyzed, the whites by their social awareness of the moral injunction against it and the black by their heightened sensitivity to it. Slowly, torturously, the wall of silence would begin to crumble before studentsı timid attempts to approach the topic with euphemism. Finally, after tense moments, one courageous adolescent would utter the word. As the class released an almost audible sight of relief, the students and I would embark upon a lively and risk-taking exchange about race and its attendant complexities. (41-2) An open classroom discussion of racial epithets in a mixed classroom of ninth graders with a sensitive and able black teacher clearly offers important opportunities for learning. With a different student population and a different teacher the results might have been less positive.

Some teachers forbid the use of the word in the classroom and simply skip over it when the work is read aloud. Others speak the word only when they are quoting from a secondary source, such as the novel itself. Others use the expression ³n-word² or ³the racial epithet.² No approach is guaranteed, but whatever approach is taken it should be done explicitly and be discussed by the students, in college or in high school. Discomfort with the word on the part of teachers or students may not be overcome by even the most sensitive approach and the problem of the racial epithet in the novel constitutes reason enough for some teachers to choose away from teaching the work. No teacher should be required to teach this novel. (The ethics of requiring teachers to teach Huckleberry Finn are explored by Wayne Booth in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Berkeley: U California P, 1988.)

There was a time when I thought it was silly not to teach Huckleberry Finn on the grounds that it was a racist novel. After reading and listening to African American scholars, teacher, parents, and students I have changed my mind. Gerald Graff has urged English teachers to ³teach the conflicts² (Beyond the Culture Wars, New York: Norton, 1992), and at teacherıs conferences in Oregon and Michigan I have advocated using the novel in a Cultural Studies framework and along with other works as an opportunity for students to develop their own critical thinking about literature, racism, and the literary canon. Given the prominence of Huckleberry Finn in the curriculum, the attempt to teach it in a truly anti-racist way marks a starting point, a much needed improvement over business as usual. I realize that sometimes it is necessary for English classrooms to be uncomfortable, and that if we fail to challenge established ways of knowing, contrast viewpoints, and broaden perspectives we fail to do our job. Yet we must be careful that such discomfort is experienced equally rather than focused on an oppressed group that is desperately struggling for school success.

It is timely for us English teachers to look beyond Huckleberry Finn, to find other works that might be more appropriate for all our students and more effective in creating multicultural communities of learning in our classrooms. Educating white students about prejudice with a text that is alienating to blacks perpetuates racist priorities, does it not?. There is no excuse for the fact that not even one of the most taught works in American high schools is written from a minority perspective‹or that many college courses still include very little African American literature. Why arenıt the great African American novels of Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston, Ralph Ellison or Alice Walker more central to our teaching? Moreover, race is not the only disturbing issue when we consider the role of Huckleberry Finn in the classroom; we also need to ask other questions, about the novelıs treatment of women, for instance, about its effect on women students, and the overwhelming male orientation of our curriculum. Julius Lester states:

[In Huckleberry Finn] civilization is equated with education, regularity, decency, and being cramped up, and the representations of civilization are women... The fact that the novel is regarded as a classic tells us much about the psyche of the white American male, because the novel is a power evocation of puer, the eternal boy for whom growth, maturity, and responsibility are enemies. (Satire and Evasion, 205)

Works for Teaching about Slavery


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (The Classic Slave Narratives. Mentor, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr., 518 pp, $5.99, Douglass wrote three autobiographies, this is the first, shortest, and most famous. A master of language Douglass contrasts the cruelty of slavery with desire of slaves for knowledge and freedom. No Jim, Douglas learns to read, explicitly adopts and develops abolitionist arguments, teaches other slaves, fights back‹at one point punching his master‹and plans a careful escape. The collection by Gates is not only inexpensive, but includes three other important slave narratives, those of Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, and Linda Brent.

The Life of Olaudah Equiano Born in Africa in 1745 Olaudah was one of the best traveled men of his age; his adventures take place in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, London, Philadelphia, Spain, Turkey, and the Arctic Circle. His account is one of the earliest views of African society by an insider and is an interesting indictment of slavery by a man who significantly assimilated to European culture.

Confessions of Nat Turner Not to be confused with the novel of the same name by William Styron, Turnerıs original confessions were recorded by a journalist named T. R. Gray and are probably the most riveting fifteen pages you or your students will ever read. Throwing caution to the winds Turner and his group of rebelling slaves would arrive at one plantation after another, slaughter the white families and be joined by many of the slaves before moving on. Though the rebels, including Turner, were eventually caught and hung their revolt reveals that anger and violent resistance were very much a part of slavery.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Linda Brent As a teenager Harriet Jacobs (aka. Linda Brent) had to withstand the cruelty and romantic advances of her master. As a young woman she hid for years in order to be out of slavery but near her children. Students will find in this story of resistance to slavery a very different perspective than that of Huck Finn. Brent is a sophisticated thinker and fine writer.

Our Nig, 1859 by Harriet Wilson (Vintage, 1983, 131 pp, $7.95, ISBN 0-394-71558-6) The first novel by an African American woman, Our Nig is about the oppression of black servants in the North rather than about slavery per se. Alice Walker says of Harriet Wilson, ³It is as if weıd just discovered Phillis Wheatley‹or Langston Hughes.... She represents a similar vastness of heretofore unexamined experience, a whole layer of time and existence in American life and literature.²

Clotel: or, The Presidentıs Daughter by William Wells Brown An early African American novel that explores the life of Thomas Jeffersonıs illegitimate slave daughter. Students will find it fascinating.

The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chestnutt. This fine turn-of-the-century novel by a somewhat lesser known but excellent black novelist is perfect for high school and college students. Set in the period just after the end of slavery the novel uses a detective fiction style to explore the experience of blacks in the South after the Civil War.

Roots by Alex Haley. Though some of us may have seen the television movie and read the book, many of our students have not encountered it. The video series is a fine way to complement other reading about slavery and presents one of the few depictions I know of slave capture and transportation to America.

Mulatto by Langston Hughes. Hughesıs play offers a compelling look at personal and social relations in the ³big house² between slave masters, their slave mistresses, and mulatto children. There is a certain mystery about the period in which the action takes place that gives the play a transhistoric dimension.

³Tribal Scars² by Ousmane Sembene. A short story by the renowned Senegalese author (found in a collection with the same name) this work examines the effect on African culture of the slave trade.

Jubilee by Margaret Walker. More approachable for most students than other contemporary black fiction on slavery such as Toni Morrisonıs Beloved, Ishmail Reedıs Flight to Canada, or Charles Johnsonıs Middle Passage, Jubilee is a powerful and compelling novel of one womanıs journey through slavery and its aftermath.

Peopleıs History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, (1980) In a series of excerptable and highly readable chapters Zinn offers a version of American history from ³the peopleıs² point of view. For use with Huck Finn or as part of a unit on slavery the chapters ³Drawing the Color Line,² and ³Slavery without Submission, Emancipation without Freedom² would be essential. Zinnıs history offers other chapters that complement many other works we teach and has a useful bibliography.

The Slave Community by John W. Blassingame, 1979. This is a classic study of the life and culture of American slave communities. A valuable classroom resource that is readable and contains numerous illustrations, students at all levels will find it helpful.

Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made by Eugene Geneovese (1976) is a massive and masterful study of slave culture written by a leading African American historian. The work is surprisingly approachable though encyclopedic. Geneoveseıs wife, Elizabeth Fox-Geneovese, has also done important work on slave culture, particularly the experience of women. Advanced students might want to examine Within the Plantation Household (1988).

Created by: careywebb@wmich.edu
Revised Date: 7/02