1.09.2011

TSS - Rewriting History



If you type in your friendly search engine (mine, in this case is google) the words: huckleberry finn rewrite, chances are you'll come up with a plethora of articles and opinions, click here for example.

And if you don't know what I'm talking about, let me explain briefly.  NewSouth Books anticipates releasing another edition of Huck Fin, sans the "n-word".  Instead, its replacement is "slave".  Much more PC, yes?  Doesn't make us cringe as much as the word n*gger does it?  Evidently the racial slur is said in Huck Finn over 200 times.

Here's their reasoning:

"After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach this novel, and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable." Gribben became determined to offer an alternative for grade school classrooms and "general readers" that would allow them to appreciate and enjoy all the book has to offer. "For a single word to form a barrier, it seems such an unnecessary state of affairs," he said.  (From here). 

From here
Immediately, I have a couple of reactions.  Also, for the record of this post, I should state that if you do not know me, I am a white middle school teacher in her early thirties.  I only feel that this is relevant because I would NEVER claim to understand what it would be like to sit in a classroom as a black student hearing the n-word.  (Although this quick op-ed from Washington Post helps).  

Whatever derogatory term out there, of course my immediate reaction, when saying it in front of students, would be to cringe.  Primarily because I am aware of their insecurities and raw emotions PLUS their adolescent brains.  (Let's not forget that middle school students have not fully developed their frontal lobe.)  But because of my hesitancy, my discomfort, do I feel that it is not of some worth to use the language of the time period, or the language that the author utilized to make a point.

(ETA - asterisks will be used so I don't get spammed folks).

N*gger is uncomfortable.  It is GOOD that it is uncomfortable.  And let's face it, even though slavery was awful and one of our despicable moments in history, I can say slave all day and it does not give the same visceral reaction that n*gger does.  Huck Finn is a window into history.  If we clean it up, we erase part of our history.

I teach a excerpt of a biography of Malcolm X and Jackie Robinson to my 7th grade students.  In it, they both use the "n-word" twice.  Even though I do this yearly I still mentally psyche myself up before reading it out loud.  But more importantly, I DISCUSS with the students what that word meant in relevance to what was going on and what it means to them hearing it now.

It just frustrates me to no end.  Teaching is not always warm fuzzies.  Our job is suppose to be difficult at times because knowledge is difficult.  It changes us.  It makes us better individuals.  Real people had to live under these circumstances (some still do).  Don't we owe it to them to continue sharing their story?  Unedited? Uncensored? Isn't that why the slaves fought to learn to read and write?  To prove that they existed?  To prove that they were people and not lesser than or property of their masters.

*sigh*  I'm on my first cup of coffee folks.  Many apologies if this rant is incoherent or rant-y.


Reading Record


Books, Finished
Rebecca by Daphne DuMauier

Books, Continuing 
Reading Woman by Stephanie Staal

Books, Beginning this Week
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

12 comments:

  1. I see your point. However, I am a middle school teacher who will not use material with language I do not allow my students to use. Not if I can help it.

    It's been years since I last read Huck Finn, a book I love by the way. But when I did, it's unlikely that I read a copy in it's original form. We've always been reading toned down versions of it. I remember a few years ago when an unexpergated version was published. It was news because it was rare.

    My memory of the novel is that this word is not necessary for it to make it's point. Huck Finn's power does not come from the use of this one word. It's much better than that. I've no problem with those who choose to read this version, and basically I've not problem with those who choose to read other versions.

    They're all reading Huck Finn in the end. And reading one version is likely to lead some people to one day try another.

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  2. I think the power of literature is that we read it in the form in which the author intended it. In our school district students don't read Huck Finn until they are juniors in high school and to me that's a more appropriate age. By then they may be better at handling the issues and discussion that come up with an issue like this.

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  3. I don't generally voice my opinion in such a manner... the word is part of history, like it orn not. If they change that word are they going to change all the dirogatoy words of others in all the books ever written????

    don't get me wrong I don't like the word either..but I don't like polack or honky or Jap either(just to mane a few)all those words are horrible and wrong but they were there. I assume things are taught to show how everything has changed in that respect also... but what do I know,I am just a very old lady who heard those words when I was young and have seen the changes also.

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  4. A few years back, Morrigan read both Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Before he read them, Jason sat him down, told him about the N word and why it was a nasty word and why he should never say it and why it was used in the context of the book. Morrigan was 8 years old and he understood. I'm not sure why some people seem to think it's a big deal to do the same for older kids.

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  5. CB - I wouldn't teach Huck Finn to my students, but I would also never eliminate a piece of work or censor while reading if the word came up. I recently taught NightJohn by Gary Paulsen and there is a scene where the slave master belligerently refers to to the slaves as n*ggers. If I had eliminated that scene I don't think my students would truly have grasped what it was like for Sarny or NightJohn on the plantation.

    Helen - I didn't mention this in my post, but like you said about your district, choosing the right grade level is important. I don't think I would ever teach it to my 7th graders because overall they're not mature enough to handle it.

    DesLily - I think you raised a valid point. Some of this has to be taught to see how we've progressed. But also, to see that we can easily go back to that place. I'm glad you shared your opinion. :))

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  6. Amanda - I wish we had more parents like you and Jason! Truly. I think that especially every time you do you family book club posts. They're one of my favorites.

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  7. Manipulating literature to suit the times is a horrible offense in my opinion. And claiming we are doing it for the kids is self-serving. Kids are quite intelligent beings, able to process complex information. Adults freak out much more often about cuss words, derogatory slang, etc. than kids do. Changing this book opens the door for damn to be removed from Catcher in the Rye, and on and on.

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  8. I will follow this conversation with great interest.

    I will be teaching To Kill a Mockingbird for the 5th time starting this week. The "N" word is rampant in that book as well. It has been my custom to give a 2-3 minute talk about the word before the students begin to read the book. I explain that it is a demeaning word that we will not use in class - ever. But I also explain that in the time period of this story, it was a familiar word and in order to create the proper context for this particular story, the word is appropriate in the book. It SHOULD make us feel uncomfortable; we SHOULD cringe every time we read it. This helps, in my opinion, elicit the emotion and understanding of the story.

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  9. I feel so frustrated with this change to Huck Finn -- we can't make our history not have happened by pretending it didn't. There's this book I really want to read, Satire or Evasion, which is a bunch of different perspectives on the whole Huck Finn question. I think in light of recent events, this would be a great time for me to read it.

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  10. Don't apologise for ranting, Christina! You made some excellent points. I also agree that to think this is necessary is to greatly underestimate kids. But on the bright side, at least this edition won't make the real, uncensored of the version cease to exist. And maybe the controversy will encourage more people to pick up the book (I should re-read it myself!)

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  11. I think part of teaching Huck Finn, or anything that deals with controversy is giving all the background information that goes along with it. I agree with you that knowledge can be difficult but in the end we grow and learn from it.

    I teach first grade and we do a big unit on Martin Luther King, Ruby Bridges, and Rosa Parks. I also teach in a very diverse community where many of my students have come from refugee situations. We have open conversations about the way people were treated and sometimes we need to deal with issues of race. If kids are taught why some things are so vile, then they won't know not to say it (does that make sense?). I think if we sanitize things then we sanitize the learning. If we want to grow as humans, then we need to know about all the rough parts too.

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  12. I don't think it's necessary to even edit the book just because a word in it makes people "uncomfortable." I think that was Twain's point, and he accurately depicted his time and made his point clear. Pretending something awful didn't happen might lead to its happening again. We need to face the wrongs of the past in order to avoid repeating them in the future.

    Editing Huckleberry Finn is just plain wrong, and reeks of ignorance.

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