Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Huckleberry, Schmuckleberry: Race and the Children's Literary Canon

Twitter's all a twitter. Facebook's in a frenzy. Yea, there's another case of Bowdlerizing classic literature afoot - and all of cyberspace seems to be up in arms.

Even The Wall Street Journal is covering the removal of a racial epithet from a new version of Huckleberry Finn, planned by an Auburn University Professor and Mark Twain scholar. Alan Gribben's new edition, published by NewSouth publishers, will apparently change Twain's usage of "the n-word" to the word "slave." Per the WSJ, Gribben's argument is as follows:

“This is not an effort to render “Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’ colorblind,” he said. “Race matters in these books. It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

As you can imagine, the commenters in cyberspace are going, well, berzerk. Cries of "shame!" "revisionism" and "censorship" abound. (One particularly funny comment to the WSJ article was by Sammie, who wrote "Smoking and chewing tabacco [sic] has also been replace in the book with playing Nintendo.")

Ok, I hear you, people. But at this point, I'm like, Huckleberry, Schmuckleberry.

It's not because I don't think issues of racism in classic children's texts aren't important. A few months ago, I wrote about my own discomfort with the portrayal of Native Americans in the Little House on the Prairie series and referred back in that post to Phil Nel's excellent blog on race and children's literature.

It's not that I think that censorship in literature is ever appropriate. I actually feel very seriously about the responsibility of writers to protect the power of words. In the words of Nobel prize winning poet and playwrite Wole Soyenka, "Books and all forms of writing are terror to those who wish to suppress the truth.” 

The reason I'm wearying of the Huckleberry Finn debate is that, in protesting this sanitization of Twain's text (my favorite comment: censorship is boring.) some of the voices in the blogosphere are protesting what I feel is the wrong issue, and most importantly, failing to ask the right questions.

The arguments, as I've seen them, are as follows (in order of how much they irritate me, most to least):

1. Protests against "Political Correctness": These arguments go something as follows. 'We've all gotten way too PC and Twain would be turning over in his grave.' 

To me, tooting on the 'it's too PC' horn is just lazy. The fact of the matter is, there are social mores we all follow and these do change with time. Just as it is illegal to falsely yell 'fire' in a crowded movie theater, or unacceptable to run naked through most suburban neighborhoods, it is similarly unacceptable to call your female co-worker "sugarlips" or some other demeaning name (no matter how many times they do it on Mad Men). These are the facts, folks. Social mores change. The n-word was a product of its time, yes, but it was and still is an epithet and as such is offensive and unacceptable in modern life. Period. 

2. Protests vis a vis. Twain's intentions: These arguments tend to suggest that Twain used "the n-word" in order to highlight the character Jim's marginalization and also shed light on the racism of the time. This argument I can hang with, to some extent, but I draw the line at treating Twain as someone who was not somehow a product of his time, class and race. Twain's portrayal of Jim is far from non-racist, although, yes, he does also illustrate and in some ways critique racism, and portray Jim as ultimately heroic.

3. Protests against sanitizing and rewriting America's racist past: This argument is made most elegantly in this article by Jamelle Bouie in The Atlantic which suggests:

But erasing [the n-word] from Huckleberry Finn—or ignoring our failures—doesn't change anything. It doesn't provide racial enlightenment, or justice, and it won't shield anyone from the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. All it does is feed the American aversion to history and reflection.

While I definitely agree that Twain's language - whether difficult to swallow for present readers or not - is an important part of our consideration of this text (indeed, it's the fact that his language is difficult to swallow that is a critical part of contextualizing Huck Finn), I think there is more nuance to the argument than simply censorship vs. no censorship.

First and foremost, what I'm not hearing enough of on the web is that this is a book for young people - and we must consider it as such.  (although this pro-Bowdlerizing author at Mother Jones did suggest that middle and high school teachers are unable to teach a book with 219 appearances of "the n-word." And if un-Bowdlerized, the original version of Huck might only be appropriate to teach at the college level)

As one commenter to Bouie's article suggested, what's at stake here is nothing less than the sole African American middle schooler in an all white class who has to sit and listen to her classmates say the "n-word" gleefully, repeatedly, followed by other offensive comments which they somehow now feel justified in making because of their teacher/school's sloppy handling of the text. To teach any text without contextualizing it is lazy, but to teach a text with racial epithets in it without historicizing it is irresponsible.

In other words, what's at stake here is nothing less than all the children of color readers in this country, who have a right to read books without being alienated and assaulted. It's nothing less than all the children in our country, who have a right to understand America's legacy of racial and colonial violence - as well as its very real modern day manifestations - from urban police violence, to immigration detention centers, to health care inequities.

Perhaps we, the adults who should know better, should be asking ourselves certain critical questions,  rather than getting caught up in arguments about what is "too PC."  Such questions include: what counts as canonical literature? who gets included in the canon and why? and most importantly, how much of an effort are we adults making to broaden our own literary and other exposures so as to broaden our children's?

As I concluded in my discussion of the Little House books, what is called for here is not Bowdlerization persay of certain agreed upon canonical texts, but rather, adults who aren't afraid to re-examine long held beliefs about how to teach, how to read, and what to read.

Yes, it is about taking responsibility to discuss America's legacy of racism explicitly and thoroughly with our young people. But it is about simultaneously providing them with a broad-ranging, heterogeneous canon - Western and non-Western, white and of color. Let's use this controversy about Huck Finn to acknowledge that 'classic children's literature' is not a narrow stream, but a great, big river.


  1. I was just reading another blog about this. I am thinking I should do a post myself about it. Which is not what I'd planned for tommorow, but I can do that later so . . . I'd forgotten Huckleberry is a children's book, thanks for pointing that out.

  2. Please do and let me know! Would love to read it! (Phil Nel, in his blog: points out Bowdlerizing is common in lots of kids books, yet the furor is about Huck Finn, which has been deemed a "classic" but not about Tom Sawyer, which is still a "children's book")

  3. maybe we should all pitch in and start our own list of suggested "cannon" books -- including more non-western literature than what is typically taught in public schools today... would be interesting to see what our readers...and what we...would want to add to the list.

  4. I really like this angle. I've been missing the controversy because a) I'm not American and b) I've never read the book in question but also due to the fact that just can't see how books that are so of their time can (in good conscience) be given to kids without a mammoth, intricate infodump of context.

    Critical analysis is a taught skill, not an innate one - I can't help but think, so far, that if you really must let Huck Finn just hang around in schools and such then replacing a word which nowadays has a LOT of politics on board with a word that's still derogatory but less.. infamous? I dunno, I don't see the horror. Especially if there's a foreword that explains it.

  5. Any multicultural and heterogeneous canon should include (these are more HS age):

    Their Eyes were watching God Zora Neal Hurston
    The Color Purple/Meridian/etc. Alice Walker
    Things Fall Apart Chinua Achebe
    House of the Spirits/Paula Isabelle Allende
    How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents Julia Alvarez
    Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian Sherman Alexie
    Bamboo People Mitali Bose Perkins

    Other thoughts:

    Funny Boy Shyam Salvadurai (Sri Lankan war, coming out story as well)
    God of Small Things Arundhati Roy
    Half of the Yellow Sun Chimamanda Adichie

    Definitely what I'm doing for my next post! Thanks Kari!

    Also thanks for your comment Claire - I like the notion that a "mammoth, intricate infodump of context" is the only ethical way to teach books like HF - N word or not...

  6. Thanks! Comprehensive round-up and analysis--particularly your conclusion.

  7. Thanks Jimin! Yea, sometimes I think we get so caught up in this PC or not nonsense that we don't ask the big questions including HOW do we teach such texts (regardless of the N word you can't teach HF without contextualization), and WHICH texts COUNT as somehow 'classical' enough to teach?

  8. Hi Sayantani! Not sure how you decide on a cannon, but surely Huckleberry is on it. Convincing teachers to teach it, on the other hand . . . They might be afraid of law suits and things like that if they go too far, become too controversial.

    I woke up today and wondered if I should blog about this too, but than I thought WTH. I wrote it. here: