How Many Times Can You Hear the Word "Nigger" Before It's Enough? Kids are often exposed to books long before they are ready for them or exposed to them in a manner that seems almost calculated to evaporate whatever enthusiasm the student may bring to them... Very few youngsters of high school age are ready for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Leaving aside its subtle depiction of racial attitudes and its complex view of American society, the book is written in a language that will seem baroque, obscure and antiquated to many young people today. The vastly sunnier Tom Sawyer is a book for kids, but The Adventures for Huckleberry Finn most emphatically is not. (Baker 114) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been considered one of Mark Twain's best works. Huckleberry Finn, Jim and Tom Sawyer are the main characters in the book.
The book is a story about Huck Finn who is the son of a harsh drunkard. Huck decides to run away to Jackson's Island in the middle of the Mississippi River. He finds Miss Watson's slave, Jim, while on the island. They decide to head to the free states, but along the way, they run into many problems including getting into a feud between the Granger fords and Sheperdsons and meeting two thieves. After overcoming a lot of troubles, Huck goes to the Phelps' who just happen to be relation to Tom Sawyer and are expecting Tom. Huck acts as if he is Tom for a long while.
Finally, word comes that Jim is free because Miss Watson freed him before she died. As the story ends, Huckleberry decides once again that he will head up north and leaves without telling a single soul. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a racist book. Probably the most discussed aspect of the book is how it addresses the issue of race.
Many critics agree that the book's presentation of the issue is complex or, some say, uneven. No clear-cut stance on race and racism emerges, yet the book uses racist language, was accepted in the time period in which it was written, and may have a negative effect on students who read the book. In order to understand this argument, it is important to look at the background of this problem. Despite the fact that Huck comes to respect Jim as a human being, he still reveals his prejudice towards black people. Dianne Telgen, a contemporary Latina writer, tells us that Huck's astonishment at Jim's deep feelings for his family is accompanied by the statement "I do believe he 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" (9).
And even after he has decided to help free Jim, Huck indicates that he still does not see black people overall as human beings. When Aunt Sally asks Tom Sawyer why he was so late in arriving, he tells her the ship blew a cylinder head. "Good gracious! Anybody hurt?" she asks. "No'm.
Killed a nigger."Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt," she responds (Telgen 9). As some critics have pointed out, Huck never condemns slavery or racial prejudice in general, but he seems to find an exception to the rule in Jim. Nevertheless, the fact that Huck does learn to see beyond racial stereotypes in the case of Jim is a profound development, considering his upbringing. He lived in a household with the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson where slaves were owned. And Pap's ranting over a free black man indicates his deep racial prejudice. When confronted with the fact that a free black man was highly educated and could vote, Pap decides he wants nothing to do with a government that has allowed this to happen.
He wants the free man, whom he calls "a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger" to be sold at auction (Telgen 9). In other words, all black people are slaves, white man's property, in his eyes. Such are the views on race with which Huck has been raised. But there is no agreement to what Twain's message on the subject of race is.
While some critics view the novel as a satire on racism and a conscious indictment of a racist society, others stress the author's overall difference about race. Critics have had a difficult time reconciling the stereotypical depictions of Jim and other slaves in the book with Huck's desire to free Jim (Telgen 9). The first racial aspect of the book is the racist language that it uses. John H.
Wallace, a consultant for Chicago public schools, says that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, is the most grotesque example of racist trash ever written (112). During the 1981-82 school year, the media carried reports that it was challenged in Davenport, Iowa; Houston, Texas; Bucks County, Pennsylvania; and of all places, Mark Twain Intermediate School in Fairfax County, Virginia. Parents in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1983 and in Springfield, Illinois, in 1984 asked that the book be removed from the classroom. All of these are coming from black parents and teachers after complaints from their children or students, and frequently white teachers, as in the case at Mark Twain Intermediate School, support them (Wallace 112).
According to the Encyclopedia of American Literature, the use of the word "nigger" disturbed a number of late twentieth century readers as much as Huck's dialectal grammar and carefree morals disgusted the Concord, Massachusetts Free Public Library, which banned the novel in 1885 (Serafin 202). The NAACP and the National Urban League successfully collaborated to have The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn removed from the classrooms of the public schools of New York City in 1957 because it used the term "nigger." In 1969 Miami-Dade Junior College removed the book from its classrooms because the administration believed that the book creates an emotional block for black students, which inhibits learning. It was excluded from the classrooms of the New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, and removed from the required reading list in the state of Illinois in 1976 (Wallace 113). According to Webster's New World Dictionary, the word "nigger" means a Negro or a member of any dark-skinned race of people and is offensive. Black people have never accepted "nigger" as a proper term, not in George Washington's time, Mark Twain's time, or William Faulkner's time.
A few white authors, thriving on making blacks objects of ridicule and scorn by having blacks use this word. The white authors, were writing and speaking for blacks in a dialect they perceived to be peculiar to black people. This may have given the impression that blacks accepted the term. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some black authors have used "nigger" but not in literature to be consumed by children in the classroom.
Black authors know as well as whites do that there is money to be made selling books that ridicule black people (Wallace 113). As a matter of fact, the white child learns early in life that his or her black peer makes a good butt for a joke. Much of what goes on in the classroom reinforces this behavior. Often the last word uttered before a fight between black and white students is "nigger." Educators must discourage the ridicule of different children. The word "nigger," no matter how it is used, offends black students. If a teacher permits the use of the word, the black child may reject the teacher thinking that the teacher may be prejudiced.
Allowing the use of the word could endanger or hurt a black student's education. Dorothy Gilliam, writing in the Washington Post of 12 April 1982, said, "First Amendment rights are crucial to a healthy society. No less crucial is the Fourteenth Amendment and its guarantee of equal protection under the law" (115). The use of the word nigger in the classroom does not provide black students with equal protection nor with equal opportunity for an education.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is racist, whether its author intended it to be or not. The book implies that black people are not honest. For example, Huck says about Jim: "It most froze me to here such talk. He wouldn't ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, 'give a nigger an inch and he " ll take an ell.' Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking" (Twain, 79).
And in another section of the book, the Duke, in reply to a question from the King, says: "Mary Jane " ll be in mourning from this out; and the first you know the nigger that does up the rooms will get an order to box these duds up and put 'em away; and do you reckon a nigger can run across money and not borrow some of it?" (Twain 160). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn also insinuates that black people are less intelligent than whites. In a passage where Huck and Tom are trying to get the chains off Jim, Tom says: "They couldn't get the chain off; so they just cut their hand off and shoved. And a leg would be better still. But we got to let that go. There ain't necessity enough in this case; and, besides, Jim the nigger, and wouldn't understand the reason for it" (Twain, 215).
On another occasion, when Tom and Huck are making plans to get Jim out of the barn where he is held captive, Huck says: "He told them everything. Jim, he couldn't see no sense in most of it, but he allowed we was white folks and knowe d better than him; so he was satisfied, and said he would do it all just as Tom said" (Twain, 223). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an American classic for no other reason than that it ridicules blacks to a greater extent than any other book given our children to read. The second racial aspect of the book is that it was accepted in the time period in which it was written. Many authorities say The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn can be used in our intermediate and high school classrooms. They consistently put stipulations on its use like the following: it must be used with appropriate planning.
It is the responsibility of the teacher to assist students in the understanding of the historical setting of the novel, the characters being depicted, the social context, including prejudice, which existed at the time depicted in the book. Balanced judgment on the part of the classroom teacher must be used prior to making a decision to utilize this book in an intermediate or high school program. Such judgment would include taking into account the age and maturity of the students, their ability to comprehend abstract concepts, and the methodology of presentation (Wallace 113). Any material that requires such conditions could be dangerous racist propaganda in the hands of even our best teachers. And "some, not all, teachers are hostile, racist, vindictive, inept, or even neurotic" though "many are compassionate and skillful" (Wallace 113). Teacher attitudes are important to students.
Some teachers are marginal at best, yet many school administrators are willing to trust them with a book that maligns blacks. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would have been out of the classroom ages ago if it used "dago,"wop," or "spic" (Wallace 113). Richard Barksdale, author of Praise song of Survival states when authorities mention the "historical setting" of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, they suggest that is an accurate, factual portrayal of the way things were in slavery days (121). In fact, the book is an outgrowth of Mark Twain's memory and imagination, written twenty years after the end of slavery. Of the two main characters depicted, one is a thief, a liar, a sacrilegious corn-cob-pipe-smoking truant; the other is a self-deprecating slave.
No one would want his children to imitate this pair. Yet some "authorities" speak of Huck as a boyhood hero. Twain warns us in the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn "persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot" (Twain 1). It is time we listen to Twain and stop allowing our children to read such a book. Racism against blacks is deeply rooted in the American culture and is continually reinforced by the schools, by concern for socioeconomic gain, and by the pretended ego enhancement it brings to those who manifest it.
And finally, the third racial aspect of the book is the negative affects it has on the students who read the book. For the past forty years, black families have traveled to schools in numerous districts throughout the country to say, "This book is not good for our children," only to be turned away by insensitive and often unwittingly racist teachers and administrators who respond, "This book is a classic" (Wallace 112). Classic or not, it should not be allowed to continue to cause our children embarrassment about their heritage. Reading the book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a class assignment could be embarrassing and insulting to a black student. The book could give a black student a low self-esteem and could give white students disrespect for black people.
Forcing a black student to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with white classmates is a type of harassment and could cause arguments, discriminations, and even fighting between white and black students. Mr. Wallace also mentioned the use of the word "nigger" by a prestigious adult like teacher, poses a strong social threat to the black child. Any expression by a white or black teacher of dislike or harm, whether through harsh, indifferent, or patronizing behavior, would tend to have an unfavorable effect on the performance of black children in their schoolwork. (114-115).
Twain said in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, more than one hundred years ago, what Dr. W. B. Shockley and A. R. Jensen are trying to prove through empirical study today (117).
This book tells us something about the power of printed word when it is taught to children by a formidable institution such as the school. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn even suggests that blacks are not human beings. When Huck arrives at Aunt Sally's house, she ask him why he is late: "We blow ed a cylinder head,"Good gracious! Anybody hurt?"No'm. Killed a nigger."Well, it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt." (Twain 199) In 1963 John Fisher, former president of Columbia Teachers College, stated that, "The black American youngster happens to be a member of a large and distinctive group that for a very long time has been the object of special political, legal, and social action... To act as though any child is separable from his history is.
In terms of educational planning, it is irresponsible. Every black child is the victim of the history of his race in this country. On the day he enters kindergarten, he carries a burden no white child can ever know, no matter what other handicaps or disabilities he may suffer" (118). The primary school child learns, almost the minute he enters school, that black is associated with dirtiness, ugliness, and wickedness. Much of what teachers and students think of the black child is color based. As a result, the black person knows his pigmentation is an impediment to his progress.
As early as the fifth grade, black students study American history and must accept their ancestors in the role of slaves. This frustrating and painful experience leaves scars that very few educators, writers, and especially English teachers can understand. We compound these problems for black children when we force them to read aloud the message of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is so devastatingly traumatic, that the student may never recover. No other child is asked to suffer so much embarrassment, humiliation, and racial intimidation at the hands of so powerful an institution as the school. The vast majority of black students have no tolerance for either ironic or satirical reminders of the insults and degradation heaped upon their ancestors in slavery and post slavery times.
Dorothy Gilliam makes a good case of protecting the rights of students when she says, "Where rights conflict, one must sometimes supersede the other. Freedom of speech does not, for example, allow words to be deliberately used in a way that would cause someone to suffer a heart attack. By the same token, the use of words in ways that cause psychological and emotional damage is an unacceptable exercise of free speech" (119). Marguerite Barnett points out that, by ridiculing blacks, exaggerating their facial features, and denying their humanity, the popular art of the Post-Civil-War period represented the political cultures' attempt to deny blacks the equal status and rights awarded them in the Emancipation Proclamation. By making blacks inhuman, American whites could destroy their claim to equal treatment. Blacks as slaves posed no problem because they were under complete domination, but blacks as free men created political problems.
The popular culture of the day supplied the answer by dehumanizing blacks and picturing them as childlike and inferior (119-120). There are, of course, some who believe that the book should be taught, that it merely reflects the time in which it was written. In an interview, on October 11, 2000, with Dr. Fred Robbins, a literature professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (SIUE), he was questioned about the racist language in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Dr. Robbins mentioned that the preface of the book, although funny, is intended to be serious. He said that Twain was trying to use words that people actually used.
For example, it would not have sounded right if Twain would have had a character say, "tell that slave to come here," the only true way to say that would be to say, "tell the nigger to come here." He also said the word "nigger" did not mean then what it does now. In Twain's time the word meant slave but evolved into meaning a poor, black person, and then evolved again into today's use of the word. On the contrary, the evolution of the language used is precisely why this book should not be presented to students. Back then, readers accepted the language because the words meant completely different things. The meaning behind the word "nigger" back then meant slave, but today the word "nigger" is degrading and hurtful and has a much more powerful meaning. Peaches Henry, an assistant professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, says that "Critics vilify Twain most often and most vehemently for his aggressive use of the word 'nigger'...
[and] no amount of intended irony or satire can erase the humiliation experienced by black children" (Henry 359). And Harold Beaver, author of the book Huckleberry Finn from the Unwin Critical Library, also writes about the racist language in the book. He says, "to us-as to millions of black Americans-the term 'nigger' connotes not only a role which is subservient, or a rank which is subordinate, but also a sub-species which is subhuman" (Beaver 42). In this day of enlightenment, teachers should not rely on a book that teaches the subtle sickness of racism to children and cause so much psychological damage to a large segment of our population. We are a multicultural, pluralistic nation. We must teach our children to respect all races, ethnic groups, and religious groups in the most positive terms conceivable.
The environment of the classroom is highly charged with emotions. There are twenty to thirty unique personalities with hundreds of needs to be met simultaneously. Each student wants to be accepted and to be like the white, middle-class child whom he perceives to be favored by the teacher. Since students do not want their differences highlighted, it is best to stress their similarities; but the reading of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in class emphasizes the one difference that is always apparent-color.
Works Cited Baker, Russell. Readings On The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Katie de Koster, ed. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, 1998. Barksdale, Richard. "The Irony of an 'Uncivilized' Friendship." Readings On The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Katie de Koster, ed. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, 1998. Barnett, Marguerite. Readings On The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Katie de Koster, ed.
Greenhaven Press: San Diego, 1998. Beaver, Harold. Huckleberry Finn. London: Unwin Hyman, 1987. Fisher, John. Readings On The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Katie de Koster, ed. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, 1998. Gilliam, Dorothy. Readings On The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Katie de Koster, ed. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, 1998.
Henry, Peaches. "The Struggle for Tolerance: Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn." A Case Study in Critical Controversy: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. New York: Bedford Books, 1995. 359-382.
Robbins, Fred. Personal interview. 11 October 2000. Serafin, Steven R. ed. "Samuel Clemens." Encyclopedia of American Literature.
New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1999. Shockley, W. B. and A. R. Jenson.
Readings On The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Katie de Koster, ed. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, 1998. Telgen, Dianne, ed.
Novels for Students. Volume 1. New York: Gale Research, 1997. Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Am sco School Publications, Inc.
, 1972 Works Cited Continued Wallace, John. "Huckleberry Finn Is Racist Trash." Readings On The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Katie de Koster, ed. Greenhaven Press: San Diego, 1998.