Huck Finn and Slave Jim float down the Mississippi in search of adventure and freedom in a newly edited version of Mark Twain’s classic designed for schools. Injun Joe is now Indian Joe. Clarence Page eloquently defends Twain’s original language, even though it’s kept the book off some school reading lists. Teach the conflict, Page writes.
As a result of complains from black children, who say the word causes them pain and inspires bullies, Huckleberry Finn “has begun to be marginalized ironically into Twain’s definition of a ‘classic,’ a work ‘which people praise and don’t read’,” Page writes. Educators dread dealing with hurt feelings.
As a black kid who read “Huck” in a mostly white classroom with a white teacher, I know the unsettling startling pain of seeing the N-word used so casually in print. But I also am eternally grateful to our teacher for helping us to talk about it. She helped us to appreciate the book’s genius of language, vision and, most memorable, its quietly subversive satirical cleverness. It skewers the immorality of white supremacy that it so vividly portrays.
Young Huck’s moral compass is warped by his drunken, brutal father and the culture in which Huck was raised, as his casual use of the N-word illustrates. Escaping his father, he unexpectedly teams up with the slave Jim. He feels guilty at first about helping his neighbor’s “property” escape. Yet as he gets to know Jim and his desire to rescue his wife and children, the slave becomes a better father figure than the one Huck left behind. To me, the book is that rare classic that I not only praise but still enjoy reading.
Editing the language “also risks taking away its edge, the risky subversive power of Twain’s words and story that kept my classmates and me awake, alert and talking about it,” Page writes.
I think Page makes a great case, but I know many more students will read the book if teachers don’t have to deal with the “n-word.” It’s a word I never write on this blog, because I don’t want to deal with it.