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N Word Debate In Huck Finn Essay

This story was first published March 20, 2011. It was updated on June 12, 2011.

From the moment it was published in 1885, Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" caused controversy. It challenged authority, poked fun at religion and was accused of leading children astray. What's surprising is that 125 years later, Huckleberry Finn is still making news.

Today there are school districts in America that ban this American classic for one reason - one word: "nigger," a word so offensive it's usually called the "N-word."

As we first reported in March, a publishing company in Alabama says that schools don't have to change their reading list because they changed Huckleberry Finn. Their newly released edition removes the N-word and replaces it with "slave." It's a bold move for what is considered one of the greatest works in American literature.

Is it ever okay to say it?
An honest discussion about a racial slur with Byron Pitts, a reporter who speaks from experience.

Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is a classic set before the Civil War. The story is told by Huck, a white boy escaping an abusive father, and about his adventures with a black man named Jim, escaping slavery.

Huckleberry Finn is set along the Mississippi River. In it, Twain used the N-word 219 times. To some people, the word gets in the way of the story's powerful message against slavery; to others, Twain is simply capturing the way people talked back then.

"Are you censoring Twain?" correspondent Byron Pitts asked Randall Williams, co-owner and editor of NewSouth Books, publishers of the sanitized edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn that replaces the N-word with the word "slave."

"We certainly are accused of censoring Twain," Williams replied.

It's aimed at schools that already ban the book, though no one knows how many have. Williams says they are not trying replace Twain's original, N-word included.

Extra: Students weigh in
Extra: "Slave" vs. the N-word?
Extra: The power behind the N-word
Extra: Is it just marketing?

"If you can have the discussion and you're comfortable havin' the discussion, have it. Have it with it in there. But if you're not comfortable with that, then here's an alternative for you to use. And I would argue to you that it's still powerful," Williams said.

The new edition drew powerful reactions from Twain scholars, the press and ordinary readers - and it's worth noting most of the articles don't spell out the word, either.

"What's it say that people have been so passionate about it?" Pitts asked.

"I think it says that race continues to be a volatile and divisive subject," Williams said.

In this passage, Huck says the word three times in two sentences: "Jim was monstrous proud about it and he got so he couldn't hardly notice the other niggers. Niggers come miles to hear Jim tell about it and he was more looked up to than any nigger in that country."

"What do you think of Huckleberry Finn?" Pitts asked author David Bradley, who teaches at the University of Oregon

"It's a great book. It's one of the greatest books in American literature," Bradley replied.

He says the key to understanding Huckleberry Finn is through Twain's use of language, as the friendship between Huck and Jim unfolds.

"When Huck comes back to that raft, he says, 'They're after us.' He doesn't say, 'They're after you.' He says, 'They're after us.' And that's the moment when it becomes about the American dilemma, it becomes about, 'Are we gonna get along?'" Bradley said.

School districts struggling to teach Huckleberry Finn have called in Bradley. He believes strongly in teaching Twain's original text.

"One of the first things I do is I make everybody say it out loud about six or seven times," Bradley said.

"The N-word?" Pitts asked.

"Yeah, 'nigger.' Get over it," Bradley replied, laughing. "You know. Now let's talk about the book."

Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been controversial ever since its release in 1884. It has been called everything from the root of modern American literature to a piece of racist trash. The greatest controversy, however, comes with its presence in high school classrooms. The book's use of the “n-word” causes many to question Twain's real motives in writing it. Huck's constant musings about Jim's uncouth and lowly demeanor can cause the reader to feel uncomfortable, but we must remember that Huck acts as he sees adults acting, and his views merely reflect those of his fellow Southerners. Twain intended The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to satirize the South and its long, excruciating process of eliminating slavery and attaining equality for all people. Huck Finn provides an accurate glimpse into our terrible past, and for this reason, it must be taught in classes across the country.

Considering that a lot of high schools are racially mixed, strong discomfort ensues when classes dive into The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If teachers do not confront the issue of the novel's offensive language ahead of time, people are bound to get upset. In Cherry Hill, New Jersey, in 1995, a group of eleventh-grade black students boycotted the book because of its racist content. Pressured into making a change before these students flunked out of school, the district brought parents, students, teachers, administrators, and scholars together to remedy the problem. After a year of intense debate, they finally figured out a way to teach Huck Finn that addressed each group's concerns.

Although Huck Finn displays examples of alarming ignorance and racism throughout, the story also contains several of the most inspirational lines in American literature. When Huck decides that he'll “go to Hell” in order to save Jim, the reader sees that Huck's real beliefs differ from those of his contemporaries. The book must be read for what it truly is: a classic of American literature, and a satire of our country at the height of its ignorance and despair.

Many critics contend that Huck Finn's offensive language makes it too advanced for high school students. Minnesota English teacher Paula Leider argues that most people's lack of experience and knowledge of “what it means to be persecuted due to race” makes us incapable of understanding the offensive nature of the novel. This argument definitely has merit, and the language in Huck Finn often borders on excessive. For example, when Huck attempts to explain the fact that different countries have different languages, Jim stubbornly refuses to believe it. Huck gives up, saying, “you can't learn a n---er to argue.”

Huck's ignorance often surfaces, and his frequent use of the “n-word” certainly causes the reader to cringe. In a racially mixed classroom, this discomfort is magnified tenfold. Black critics of Huck Finn, including school administrator John H. Wallace, believe that the novel's excessive bigotry delegitimizes its message. The offensive language in Huck Finn certainly makes it a difficult book to read.

Although the argument against reading this novel certainly makes sense, many forget how influential and important The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was in our country. Critics often forget Samuel Clemens' strong views on slavery and abolition. They forget that he supported the liberation of slaves; he even paid for a black youth's education at Yale University. In an article in College English magazine, Lucille Fultz calls Wallace's criticism of the novel “self-righteous indignation.” Sadly, many critics refuse to analyze the novel and read Huck Finn for its intended purpose: to criticize America's despicable views of black people, and to offer a look at our hopeful, tolerant future through the eyes of a Southern boy.

When Jim gets mad at Huck for lying about his dream, Huck feels terrible. The process of “humbling [himself] to a n---er” presents Huck with a moral dilemma, but he does apologize, adding that he “warn't ever sorry for it afterwards.” This act portrays Huck not as an ignorant Southern bore, but rather an empathetic child slowly beginning to understand that the man he perceived as property and less than human actually has feelings and needs similar
to his.

After reading The Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn, I believe that the way a teacher approaches ­discussing it is critical. Before beginning, the teacher must acknowledge the severity of the language. ­Taking a vote on the use of the “n-word” in class ­discussion could cut down on awkwardness in the classroom.

Despite the controversies, I believe that Huck Finn must be read in American literature courses because of the important role it played in our country's past. No classroom should skip Huck Finn; every English class can find a way to read this novel that meets their specific needs.

This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This piece won the May 2011 Teen Ink EBSCO POV Contest.

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