Students can’t utter the N-word in school, but can read it in English class

Should we continue to teach “Huck Finn” in school?

No one believes the N-word belongs in the classroom. Yet, the racial slur appears in classic American novels routinely taught in high schools today.

Should schools teach “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” or other works that contain racist language that may make some students uncomfortable or give others tacit approval to use the terms?

That question is being asked in the Accomack County Public Schools in Virginia after a mother complained about “Huck Finn,” which uses the N-word 219 times. The woman’s biracial son found the language upsetting, prompting her to ask the school board to remove the book. Accomack is now evaluating whether “Huck Finn” ought to be in its schools.

In the audio recording of the Nov. 15 board meeting, the mother tells the board she’s pleased with her son’s education and his teachers, but troubled over his class reading list, which includes “Huck Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

She tells the board:

“I keep hearing, ‘This is a classic, This is a classic.’  I understand this is a literature classic, but at some point, I feel that children will not or do not truly get the classic part, the literature part, which I’m not disputing. This is great literature. But there are so many racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that. And right now, we are a nation divided as it is.

I teach my son he is the best of both worlds and I don’t want him to feel otherwise. There is other literature they can use. We are validating that these words are acceptable and they are not acceptable — by no means. I do have information that shows how it physically and psychology can affect children, primarily African-American children.  My son can walk outside and be called that name. We don’t need it in the school system.”

The Christian Science Monitor has a good story on the issue, in which experts share their views:

Does teaching these books, or other examples of difficult and uncomfortable racially charged literature, mean that teachers are condoning this language? Of course not, many literature experts say – in fact, for many teachers, avoiding such stories would amount to erasing the reality of racism. “I think the key point to make here is that the burden of freedom of speech is not borne equally by all people. African-American students hear those words differently – the argument for banning the books is that the white kids don’t bear the burden of freedom of speech in the same way,” Philip Nel, a professor of English at Kansas State University who specializes in children’s literature, tells The Christian Science Monitor.

Dr. Nel says that while “Huck Finn,” for example, is often touted as a great American classic, it is certainly not progressive insofar as it portrays African-American characters as racist stereotypes. Nevertheless, the fact that these books make many students and teachers uncomfortable is not a reason not to teach them, Nel says. In fact, the very discomfort that they provoke can be incredibly helpful in the hands of a sensitive teacher who can guide students through the experience and create greater dialogue.

I spent the weekend reading discussions about this thorny question and found a divide among educators and experts. Some teachers said it was unfair to force black students to read books that feature the N-word and trade in racial stereotypes, especially when classes read few books showing African-Americans as leaders and heroes.

Allen Webb of Western Michigan University writes, “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 aren¹t the great African-American novels of Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston, Ralph Ellison or Alice Walker more central to our teaching?”

This is a good essay by a teacher who stopped teaching “Huck Finn.” Rebekah Shoaf writes, “The decisions we make about what young people read and write are sociopolitical acts. Our students are regularly bombarded with representations of how hostile, unjust, and dangerous the world is if you are a young person of color growing up today. They don’t need to read Huck Finn to learn about a Black man who is trapped and disempowered by American society. They already know that story.”

But the National Coalition Against Censorship sent a letter of protest last year to a private school in Pennsylvania that pulled “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from its 11th grade American literature curriculum.

The letter stated:

Indeed, at a time of difficult and polarizing conversations about race, it is understandable that a novel which repeatedly uses a highly offensive slur would generate discomfort. But does the discomfort caused by the language or the ambiguities of the novel’s narrative outweigh the value of teaching the book?

Attempts to remove books from schools invariably claim that an idea or image offends or disturbs. But acceding to such demands denies everyone – the students protesting as well as those who would want to read the book – an opportunity to engage with the text in a meaningful way. A pedagogically sound approach to curricular selections requires educational professionals to ask whether a book is relevant to the students, not whether it is comfortable.

And Huckleberry Finn’s complex examination of race relations at a fraught moment in the country’s history makes it particularly relevant today. As Nobel Prize Laureate Toni Morrison wrote, “In addition to the reverence the novel stimulates is its ability to transform its contradictions into fruitful complexities and to seem to be deliberately cooperating in the controversy it has excited. The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises.” Indeed, the challenge of reading Huck Finn is the reason why it should be read within the classroom, where its complexities and ambivalences can be contextualized and examined.

What do you think?

 

 

 

Reader Comments 0

234 comments
Sharon Lawson
Sharon Lawson

YES--------------these stories show how history was

Steve Mistich
Steve Mistich

Get over it people they say worst words than that

SpecialEdTeach
SpecialEdTeach

I've taught at a well-respected, racially diverse High School in the South going on 2 1/2 years and I've listened to the language students use formally and informally. While they are in class and in front of adults, the content of their language is very "politically correct", but when they are between classes, in the halls, or at lunch and whether talking with acquaintances, friends, or other peers, the content changes and becomes more antagonistic and barbed- and that's just between friends!! So if they become angry or even just slightly annoyed, well it gets R-rated pretty fast. And it really doesn't matter whether the conversations happen between black to black, black to white, white to white, or white to black students, it makes the language from the books in question relatively tame. I mean they drop F-bombs as often and as naturally as one uses articles like "the" and "I". And the racial slur that started this dialogue, is used so frequently, kids seem to have become numb to it. My point is, the kids seem to understand how to view information in context. They must since they seem to be using the concept by changing the way they talk in structured and unstructured settings. High School is about preparing adolescents for adulthood. The time to shelter them from harsh realities and any and all things unpleasant is over. The real world is not always pretty and there are all types of people all with their own differing opinions. And whether someone asks them or not, some of these people will share those opinions to any and all that are within ear shot, or direct those opinions to a single person or group of people. And they won't hesitate to use words that can alienate or humiliate or words that can make a sailor blush. Our kids will have to put that information into context based on who, what, where, why, and how it's being delivered, decide how they feel about it, and then what action to take, if any. It's hard for everyone, but as we've learned from our wise elders, it gets easier with experience and exposure. So the sooner that experience and exposure starts, the better.

Mitch Bryant Jr.
Mitch Bryant Jr.

Read "protocols of the learned elders of zion"...every race needs to be concerned what the jews are up to and why they've pitted us all against each other

Angela Jackson
Angela Jackson

Yes they are classic books stop being so protective

Faten Hafez
Faten Hafez

 As a College Composition instructor, I am well-aware of the importance of teaching the history of African American in its entirety. Harper Lee was a civil rights advocate and Mark Twain was an abolitionist; they were not shy in exposing the defects of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century American society. Their novels are great classics that mark an important part of the American History. We should not classify these books as scholarly unfit, neither should we withdraw them from the schools' curriculum. But we can change the way we teach them and take an approach that unravels their positive potential. We can use the racial slurs, the injustice, and the prejudice that are embedded in the narratives and educate the students about the negativity of racial injustice and discrimination.

Rick Patterson
Rick Patterson

Books teach us historical cultures, both good and bad. It's not hearing or speaking the words but what we learn by the experience. This is historical reality. We should spend our time stopping the filth in music, movies, tvs, and video games that normalizes this filth to our youth.

Jackie Teusch
Jackie Teusch

\U0001f62d\U0001f62d\U0001f62d\U0001f62d\U0001f62d\U0001f62d\U0001f62d\U0001f62d\U0001f62d\U0001f62d\U0001f62d This is why we give every kid participation trophies. Too soft. Coddle your kids.. because my son is not coddled. And when he ends up your kids boss.. he's not gonna coddle your soft babies either.

Aaron Garner
Aaron Garner

I much enjoyed the article! Very good points, at a time when so much of the news is just crap. Personally I think it will be hard to move forward as a country if we can't discuss our history with sensitivity, both the good parts and the bad.

Melody Corley
Melody Corley

I remember the first time I read Huck Finn! It was a hoot! Omg, I laughed so hard!

Sandra Adams
Sandra Adams

With all the hate that is going on today those books are a walk in the park as opposed to why these kids see on TV and the internet . All that crap being said and seen and coming from a president elect and a slew of other people and you are worried about books that entertain the mind oh give me a break.

Nikky Jamz
Nikky Jamz

But they walk outside.....turn on the radio.....and.... John Pate

David Perry
David Perry

Its like saying Romeo and Juliet gives kids the approval to commit suicide.

Betty Hurst Conner
Betty Hurst Conner

You know maybe the old way was better. Blacks had their schools and whites had theirs. Now Ellison and the black Panthers are trying to take five southern states and put blacks in them so the blacks will have their own US. If that's what you want take California, New York, and other states and leave the South along. Blacks and Whites get along fine. We love and help each other and respect each other and don't fight each other . We are in the Bible Belt and we know God made us all the same and he said both races were good.

JohnandSusan Ellis
JohnandSusan Ellis

Should they teach Shakespeare? It is stories of the time period! School isn't a place to tiptoe through the tulips;it's a place to learn all walks of life!

Vicky Brown
Vicky Brown

Kids need to toughen up and realize that racism is part of our heritage. Stop sugar coating everything!

Greg Stewart
Greg Stewart

Who says it's not used? Go to any majority black place and listen to them call each other the Nword, constantly

Binyamin Thiel
Binyamin Thiel

Absolutely... There is a lot to be learned from those books...

Grace Aldridge
Grace Aldridge

they are books and part of our history, I have been called whitey a few times, plus names a lot worse . get over it.

Amy Kathern
Amy Kathern

Absolutely! My dad (Jeff Kollar) is your granddad's brother.

Amy Kathern
Amy Kathern

Hi Angela, I am your mom's cousin! Just wanted to say thank you for your activism with the petition. As a mom of a biracial son, I know how important it is that we read literature that makes us uncomfortable. ..not to mention that book banning in and of itself is very scary.

Angela Morabito
Angela Morabito

Hi Amy! Nice to e-meet you! I'm so glad to do this - I was fortunate to have great teachers who not only included these books, but also taught us about the importance of learning from the past. Best wishes to you and your son - so exciting to learn I've got more cousins out there!!!

John Pate
John Pate

Maybe we should start with the music that is being made at this moment.

Charles Rogers
Charles Rogers

You can rewrite history. Our government has and you have an ignorant generation. You can take out more and cause more confusion. So what are you going to do, leave out books that may offend some? You might as well ban the Bible because it might offend the queers.

Chyna Jackson
Chyna Jackson

Saying the "n" word to offend someone purposely is totally different from reading the word that was historically used freely during times of oppression. Both novels teach tolerance while exposing some of the darkest times in American history.

Jeanie Nida Cape
Jeanie Nida Cape

Can't utter it in school?? Walk down any middle or high school hall and you will hear blacks calling other blacks the N word left and right!!

Harry David Poole II
Harry David Poole II

Found both books extremely boring when I was in school....kinda glad kids wont have to waste their time reading it, kinda sad kinds wont have to waste their time reading it

Bonny Thomas
Bonny Thomas

are you idiots--you don't ban Huck Finn and Mockingbird

Ann Rogers
Ann Rogers

The N word just doesn't sound as bad as the F word or M F words to me .I don't see why it,s so offensive .too sensitive.

Summer Smith
Summer Smith

History is History. Good or bad, It cannot be changed altered or erased. We must reject this ridiculous sensitivity in America. Part of education is learning that the world isn't the way you wish it would be, but to what the reality is so you can better prepare for it. Students of all ages should be taught to think, not what to think.

Mona Prince Hickey
Mona Prince Hickey

But it's okay for them to read that little Johnny has two Dads..........

Danielle McCoy Steele
Danielle McCoy Steele

Why not teach them both? Setting Huck Finn next to The Bluest Eye or The Color Purple could allow for an intricate examination of not only very different writing styles but cultural views and race relations. Students could gain a lot from that kind of study and learn from both voices.

Thomas Adams
Thomas Adams

Yes, it should give the word historical context.

James M Moore
James M Moore

Yes it amazed me when our schools were integrated in jr high school how much black folks used the word calling each other that everyday ....

Ron Doo
Ron Doo

History is History no matter how ugly it is...

Judy Bleeks
Judy Bleeks

Leave the classics alone . These hooks were written before we became more sensitive to hurtful words

Gaye Childs
Gaye Childs

They did when I was growing up. Why not now?

Michelle Lynn
Michelle Lynn

Yes. Both stories are compelling!!! Not like this rap today.....

Deborah Churchwell
Deborah Churchwell

People are missing the key point: These books are being TAUGHT as lessons and historical records of a certain era. Not only are these books classics, but they define a period of time. They are lessons about tolerance and racism that need to be taught. Cleopatra used her "feminine" wiles to conquer Caesar, Delilah used sex to overpower Samson. Should we ban Egyptian history and the Bible because of sex that might offend the extremely sensitive minds of today's youth?

Len Griffin
Len Griffin

Have they listen to any Rap music?????????????

Keith Pflepsen
Keith Pflepsen

The bible refers to slavery. Islam still practices slavery so nothing can be learned about that part of history.