by Lisa Curry
At my in-laws’ the Saturday before last, my husband headed to the attic in search of old Hardy Boys mysteries, which our firstborn, Griffin, has been reading like crazy of late. He only found one, plus Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Griffin, age 11, dove right into The Mystery of the Haunted Fort, but I snatched up the dusty old copy of Huck Finn.
“Sean,” I said to my 9-year-old, “we have to read this book together. I love this book. You’ll love this book. Huck Finn is like the original Junie B. Jones.”
(For those of you without grade-school-age children, Junie B. Jones is title character and first-person narrator of a series of books by Barbara Park, my hands-down favorite of all the children’s books I’ve read with the boys.)
Sean and I snuggled into Grandma’s recliner and started to read:
You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.
We were rockin’ and rollin’, taking turns reading the pages, until we hit the fifth page of the book, which was my turn to read.
Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim…
My eyeballs about popped out of their sockets, and I snapped the book shut.
“Hey! Why’d you do that?” Sean asked.
I think I read Huck Finn when I was about 12 or 13. I remembered that I loved it and why, but apparently I hadn’t remembered everything about it. I couldn’t bring myself to read any more of it – to say that word aloud – to my child.
But it was a good book. A great book. It was definitely not a racist book. Quite the opposite, from what I recalled. And what did refusing to read it make me – some kind of Nazi book burner?
I opened the book again. “Okay, Sean, listen. This is a very bad word. We NEVER say this word. But this book was written something like 125 years ago, and it’s set even before that, and things were different then. So we’re going to read it, but we’re not ever going to use this word other than when we’re reading this book. Got it?”
Sean nodded, so I read on, cringing as I read the n-word over and over and over again.
A few minutes later, Sean tapped me on the arm and whispered, “Mommy, who are the niggers?”
Oh my. The poor child had never heard the word before – and thank God for that – but if he didn’t even know what the word meant, he could hardly be expected to follow the story, let alone get the point.
I closed the book again. “You know, we probably need to talk about some stuff before we read any more of Huck Finn.”
So we talked. About slavery and the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. We talked about what it meant that 40 years after Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial – which we’ve watched together on U-Tube – we had a black man running for President of the United States. When we were done talking, we went back to Huck.
Over the next few days, I kept thinking I couldn’t be the only person in the modern world who loved Huck Finn but had a hard time reading it aloud to a child. So I did a little web-surfing and found out I was right.
Some high schools have just plain old removed Huck Finn from their English curriculum. And I can’t blame them, because I have a hard enough time reading the n-word to my own child in the privacy of my own home. My heart quails at the thought of reading it in a classroom full of both white and black children.
But a high school in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, didn’t cop out. Instead, they formed a multicultural task force to study the issue, which resulted in the development of both a Villanova University workshop for English teachers who wish to teach Huck Finn and a whole accompanying curriculum that focuses on black history and racism in America to teach along with it. You can read about it here.
Banning the book would be a lot easier, of course, but it occurs to me that a class like the one they teach in Cherry Hill could change a child’s life in a more profound way than simply understanding the literary significance of a single novel. Even if it is the novel about which Ernest Hemingway said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. …All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
A class like that could make a child a better person forever. I think Mark Twain would be pleased.
Here and now, Barack Obama is President-Elect. Sean and I are still reading Huck Finn.
Like Huck, we’re all “lightin’ out for the Territory ahead…”
God bless America.