January 2011, Week 2


Options: Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Portside Moderator <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Sat, 8 Jan 2011 12:35:50 -0500
text/plain (271 lines)
Readers Respond on Mark Twain Controversy

Re: New Controversy Over Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and
the "N-word" (2 articles)

Responses from: Amiri Baraka, Jack Radey, Joseph Maizlish,
Chris Lowe, Alessandro Portelli, Carl Davidson


What shd Twain have called him "Afro American Jim"? By
removing the "slurs" yr hiding American history which a lot
of the world's worst wd like to do. Leave Twain alone

Amiri Baraka

Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, this one boggles the mind, it
do.  Have any of these folks (the Gribbenage of the world)
ever encountered the word, "irony"?  Besides doing a word
count, have they actually READ Huck Finn?  Do they have the
slightest notion what it is about?  The point of the book is
not to celebrate running around barefoot and avoiding Sunday
school, it is about racism, slavery, and the struggle
against it, not in terms of Glorious Slogans Emblazoned on
Banners, but by looking at ordinary people, warts,
superstitions, mistaken values and all.  Jim, the "nigger",
is the towering character of righteousness, courage, and
self sacrifice, and Huck, raised and instructed to think of
him as a lesser being, a "nigger" if you will, looks down in
his heart and acknowledges that that is a bunch of shit, and
Jim is a good man, and it is his duty to help him escape.

Twain in the process does a tour de force of the communities
and attitudes along the Mississippi, and does some of the
most glorious writing in the English language.  And he makes
the point, people do not speak in proper English in the
dialog, and it isn't because Twain is too dumb to use proper
grammar, but because he is actually trying to duplicate the
dialects of the people who populate the novel.  Twain, of
course, was the master of irony, sarcasm, and all the other
fine arts of teaching a lesson without pontificating.  To me
one of the most telling and memorable passages in the book,
is a throw-away overheard dialog involving two folks
discussing events on the river.  One remarks that there was
a boiler explosion aboard a steam boat.  The other expresses
concern about casualties, only to be told that, "No, no one
was hurt.  A nigger was killed."  An idiot reading that
could conclude that Twain was a racist, or at least an
insensitive clown.  Anyone with half a clue can figure out
that what he is saying is that the person who makes the
remark is showing his own callous disregard for the lives of
his fellow humans.

I do understand how African American kids, exposed to the
book in an environment where the teacher is not making a
point of letting the class know what Twain is doing, could
find it humiliating and degrading.  On the other hand, I
also remember how Dick Gregory entitled his autobiography,
"Nigger", "So that way every time my momma hears the word,
she'll know its just someone promoting my book!", and it is
a little hard to believe that a kid could be humiliated by
the word in class, and not bothered by it in the music that
surrounds him/her after class...

Hands off Mark Twain, the greatest American author, ever!

Jack Radey


Good article for the week in which the House Republicans set
up a reading of an expurgated U.S. Constitution!

Joseph Maizlish


Maybe it's because I'm a historian, but I'm a little
disappointed that none of the critiques of the
bowdlerization of the word "nigger" and the name "Nigger
Jim" out of the New South edition of The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn say explicitly that it does violence to a
book as a historical document, as well as piece of
literature.  Moreover, it is a historical document in
complex ways.  It is a document of the time it was written
and published, and in that context, further it is a document
of Twain's own consciousness of history, his reflections on
the world in which he grew up as history, 30 or 40 years on,
with the Civil War and Emancipation and Reconstruction and
the beginnings of post-Reconstruction reaction & the
lynching era, and his representation of that world.  And
it's also a historical document of all the times since then
when it has been read, in the readings and reactions made in
those times, including now.

Huck Finn as a character does and says many things in the
course of the book that readers are expected to understand
as at least problematic and often as wrong, whether wrong in
the sense of immoral or in the sense of making important
mistakes.  Many of those things are clearly portrayed as
deriving from the unselfconscious mental world of an
uneducated boy -- though not an inexperienced one -- or of
his consciousness of wrongheaded mores and expectations that
he hasn't learned yet to question.

Huck gains considerable consciousness, though perhaps not a
completely revolutionized world view, over the course of the
book.  Some of the clearest things he learns involve changed
consciousness of who Jim is and what Jim means in his life,
what Jim has done for him and what he has done to Jim.  All
of that leads at least to questions about how it is that the
world has put Jim in the situation it has, and perception of
at least some of the wrongs involved.  In many ways it's a
mad world, not just in its treatment of Jim and his family
and by extension enslaved black persons, but also in the
bloody futility of the "honor" driven feud that kills off a
potential friend to Huck along with his family, the madness
of Huck's drunken, violent then murdered father, the
foolishness and gullibility of the people gulled by the Duke
and the Dolphin, the immorality of their cons and what it
costs Huck to be involved in them and gains him to extract
himself -- on and on.

So talk about the word.  What does it mean to Huck at the
beginning?  Is it any different at the end?  What does it
mean to Jim?  Does Huck even think about that at the
beginning?  Might he at the end?  If Twain is painting a
picture of a mad world, whose madness and its horrors of
slavery and misunderstood senses of honor careened not long
after into the mad bloodbath of the Civil War, do we think
*he* questioned the role of that word, of dehumanizing
language, in making that world and its drive to self-
destruction?  What would he want his early readers to
question, about themselves, their recent past, their then
present?  High school students are fully capable of thinking
and talking about those questions.

But because of its status as literature, The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn is also a historical document of all the
times since it was written, in how it has been taken up and
read.  This is probably harder to get at in teaching,
although the Olbermann / Harris-Perry segment linked in the
second of your two quoted commentaries offers a partial
route, in pointing out that early efforts to suppress
teaching of the book were often driven by feelings that it
made Jim "too human," despite using the word "nigger" and
the name "Nigger Jim."  You could get high schoolers to talk
about that.  You might also be able to talk about when those
words started to be seen as a problem to have in a book
taught in high school -- not all that long ago.  What about
all the years in between, when that question went unasked,
or at any rate wasn't treated as a reason to think about not
exposing young minds to the book?

Here I think Marcia Alesan Dawkins goes a little wrong.
Maybe as she says "reading 'The Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn' and 'Tom Sawyer' for over a century ... hasn't stopped
us from passing civil rights legislation, ending segregation
in public schools [well, legally enforced segregation
anyway], passing the Voting Rights Act, engaging in
interracial relationships [well, stopping, mostly, looking
upon them with disapproval and punishing them legally or
with lynchings or in other ways], appointing nonwhite
members to the Supreme Court or electing nonwhite political
officials, including our current president."

But it also didn't stop Southern white "Redemption" from
Reconstruction, it didn't stop the lynching era, it didn't
stop the construction of the edifices of Jim Crow and its
less formal brethren in the North and West, or the non-
enforcement of civil rights laws and the 14th Amendment for
nearly a century, either.

Where did The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn fit in those
times?  Did its use of the word "nigger" and the name
"Nigger Jim" contribute to any of those bad things?  Did its
treatment of the humanity of Jim, its portrayal of the
madnesses of the antebellum world, its ironic view of Huck's
unselfconscious racism amidst all his other unselfconscious
faults, and his struggles to gain consciousness, his
lessening racism making him a better person, influence minds
away from the racisms of the lynching and Jim Crow eras?  Or
did those facets of the book get buried by the white racist
"common sense" of those times?

It would be harder to raise those questions in high school,
I think.  I suspect that the more primary task of laying a
groundwork for understanding that race and racial thinking
and persistent racism have a history, a changing but
continuous past in our country, that continues into our
present and will continue into our future, would take up all
the time available.  And that assumes a desire to teach that
history and the ability to withstand pushback from forces
that don't want it taught, things that probably can't really
be assumed, that might even need to be treated as heroic if
achieved under present conditions.  But maybe it could be
done.  At very least, the door ought to be left open to the
possibilities of some students figuring some things out on
their own.

But certainly it would be and is possible to ask students to
think about why it's o.k. to try to understand the use of
that language in a work of literature written in the 1880s,
and what Twain might have meant by using it, versus why it
it's not o.k. to use it in talking to one another or about
one another now -- the difference between using it as a tool
and an object of critical thinking, and using it as a means
to hurt other people in the present.  Denying high schoolers
information about the history of their country, society and
culture is not going to help them make good choices now, or
understand what those choices, good or bad, mean.

Chris Lowe
Portland, Oregon

Can I just submit another reason for keeping the "n" word in
"Huckleberry Finn"? It's mere good literary and teaching
practice. It's just impossible to imagine that Huck Finn the
character would have used another word. It is precisely the
fact that he has been socialized to speak and think that way
that generates much of the drama in the novel. Perhaps
teachers ought to be trained to distinguish (and help
students distinguish) between a character's words and
thoughts and the

Incidentally: I just recently taught "Huckleberry Finn" and
the other day I got an e mail from a Rumanian young woman in
my class. She said, more or less: our society still thinks
of some people as "niggers", and we Rumanians and other
immigrants are it. In fact, the Italian language didn't have
an equivalent of the n-word, but has quickly developed a few
in the space of less than thirty years.

Alessandro Portelli
(Professor of American Literature, University of Rome "La

Huckleberry Finn is a work with a profoundly anti-racist
message at its core. Huck believes that his society's norms
will send him to hell for the sin of helping Jim escape, but
he decides to 'sin' and 'go to hell' anyway, thus affirming
their common humanity. Changing or taking out the 'N-Word'
only diminishes the sharp edge of Huck's dilemma and his
ultimate moral stance. It is indeed a 'teachable moment,'
and those who can't make good use of it,, need to study the
book and the history of the times it was written in a little
more themselves.

Carl Davidson


Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

Submit via email: [log in to unmask]

Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3

Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq

Sub/Unsub: http://portside.org/subscribe-and-unsubscribe

Search Portside archives: http://portside.org/archive

Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate