Friday, November 14, 2008

The Territory Ahead

by Lisa Curry

At my in-laws’ the Saturday before last, my husband headed to the attic in search of old Hardy Boys mysteries, which our firstborn, Griffin, has been reading like crazy of late. He only found one, plus Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Griffin, age 11, dove right into The Mystery of the Haunted Fort, but I snatched up the dusty old copy of Huck Finn.

“Sean,” I said to my 9-year-old, “we have to read this book together. I love this book. You’ll love this book. Huck Finn is like the original Junie B. Jones.”

(For those of you without grade-school-age children, Junie B. Jones is title character and first-person narrator of a series of books by Barbara Park, my hands-down favorite of all the children’s books I’ve read with the boys.)

Sean and I snuggled into Grandma’s recliner and started to read:

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.

We were rockin’ and rollin’, taking turns reading the pages, until we hit the fifth page of the book, which was my turn to read.

Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim…

My eyeballs about popped out of their sockets, and I snapped the book shut.

“Hey! Why’d you do that?” Sean asked.

I think I read Huck Finn when I was about 12 or 13. I remembered that I loved it and why, but apparently I hadn’t remembered everything about it. I couldn’t bring myself to read any more of it – to say that word aloud – to my child.

But it was a good book. A great book. It was definitely not a racist book. Quite the opposite, from what I recalled. And what did refusing to read it make me – some kind of Nazi book burner?

I opened the book again. “Okay, Sean, listen. This is a very bad word. We NEVER say this word. But this book was written something like 125 years ago, and it’s set even before that, and things were different then. So we’re going to read it, but we’re not ever going to use this word other than when we’re reading this book. Got it?”

Sean nodded, so I read on, cringing as I read the n-word over and over and over again.

A few minutes later, Sean tapped me on the arm and whispered, “Mommy, who are the niggers?”

Oh my. The poor child had never heard the word before – and thank God for that – but if he didn’t even know what the word meant, he could hardly be expected to follow the story, let alone get the point.

I closed the book again. “You know, we probably need to talk about some stuff before we read any more of Huck Finn.”

So we talked. About slavery and the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. We talked about what it meant that 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial – which we’ve watched together on U-Tube – we had a black man running for President of the United States. When we were done talking, we went back to Huck.

Over the next few days, I kept thinking I couldn’t be the only person in the modern world who loved Huck Finn but had a hard time reading it aloud to a child. So I did a little web-surfing and found out I was right.

Some high schools have just plain old removed Huck Finn from their English curriculum. And I can’t blame them, because I have a hard enough time reading the n-word to my own child in the privacy of my own home. My heart quails at the thought of reading it in a classroom full of both white and black children.

But a high school in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, didn’t cop out. Instead, they formed a multicultural task force to study the issue, which resulted in the development of both a Villanova University workshop for English teachers who wish to teach Huck Finn and a whole accompanying curriculum that focuses on black history and racism in America to teach along with it. You can read about it here.

Banning the book would be a lot easier, of course, but it occurs to me that a class like the one they teach in Cherry Hill could change a child’s life in a more profound way than simply understanding the literary significance of a single novel. Even if it is the novel about which Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. …All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

A class like that could make a child a better person forever. I think Mark Twain would be pleased.

Here and now, Barack Obama is President-Elect. Sean and I are still reading Huck Finn.

Like Huck, we’re all “lightin’ out for the Territory ahead…”

God bless America.


Tory said...

I have to admit, with embarrassment, I've never read Huck Finn. I've intended to, many times, but just never gotten to it.

Thanks, Lisa, for reminding me why I should.

Annette said...

Thanks for a lovely, thoughtful post, Lisa. I, too, grew up loving Huck Finn. I've had no opportunities to go back and pick it up again, though, so like you, I was rather surprised by that word. I like to think we've come a million miles on that topic and I really would love to take that class in Cherry Hill. But I've read and heard some outrageous comments from members of the losing side in this election that make me sad. We HAVE come a long way (I could hug both you and Sean for the fact he didn't know what the word meant), but I fear we have many miles yet to travel before all of our citizens reach Sean's level of maturity.

Joyce said...

Great post, Lisa! I read Tom Sawyer to Josh when he was about Sean's age. Sigh. I miss those days.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

Lisa extremely insightful. It's been years since I read it and I'd probably have trouble reading it to my kids now and the youngest is 16. I've banished the word from my vocabulary and my home.

There are things in history we should never forget. Slavery and prejudice are among them. In my humble opinion, 9/11 is another.

We need to learn from our mistakes and it sounds like at least one school gets it.

Gina said...

Great post, Lisa!
I read Huck Finn as a child and have always remembered those words -- I feel that the book was a major influence not only on me but on all of us who have struggled for social justice under circumstances like those faced by Huck. In other words, what do you do when the prevailing view doesn't mesh with what seems right to you? Huck struggles with the issue of slavery -- remember, Jim belonged to the widow, a religious woman who took Huck in and was providing a home for him. Over and over again, Huck articulates the issue and wonders about his own morality because he can't seem to accept what passes for right and good in his society. It's a brilliant book and, like the Harry Potter series, has the ability to make its young readers question the status quo and learn to grow as human beings.

Dana King said...

Kudos to Cherry Hill for taking the time to do this right. Banning Huck Finn for one offensive word is like banning books that mention childbirth because sex had to have been involved. That word is offensive for a reason; understanding the reason should be the goal, not sweeping the whole story under the carpet. It's been a long time since I read Huck Finn, but it as eloquent an argument against racism as any I remember. That people are willing to do without that lesson just to avoid an unpleasant word is part of the reason we still have so far to go in race relations.

jnantz said...

I am ashamed to admit that a former colleague of mine, a black woman (and a great teacher), refused to teach the book because of that word being used by a white character. She thought that was the best way to teach the lessons against racism. I say I'm ashamed because I honestly don't think she saw how much an advocate Huck could be, if taught in the correct light.

Mr. King, I know your bio says you were a teacher at some point, and I can tell. You summed up better in one paragraph what I would want those students, and that teacher, to have gotten from a novel that could be a very teachable moment, or a wasted one. Well said, sir.

Mary said...

My favorite part was Huck's decision that if helping Jim meant he would go to hell, then he would just have to go to hell.
I handled the reading aloud of Twain's works by creatively changing that n-word: we wouldn't re-write Twain, but we didn't have to have that word in our mouths and ears. (Some of my colleagues kept the word, and compared it to reading a part in a play -- their decision). My students and I worked to find other words -- man, woman, child, person -- to fit the context. We talked about the times and the attitudes, Twain's attitudes toward slavery, and the fact that Twain as narrator (In _Pudd'nhead Wilson_ which we read in full) didn't use that word.

Anonymous said...

As writers, you might all be interested in a new item in the Signals catalog. It's a bracelet of books, banned books, to be precise. I may have to get it. It includes To Kill A Mockingbird and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, among others.

Karen in Ohio