Saturday, January 8, 2011

Huckleberry Finn, the word "nigger," and The Importance of Teaching Reading

What, you might ask, does the current flap about an English professor’s replacing the word “nigger” with the word “slave” in a new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn have to do with the subject of this blog—The Short Story? Because, it seems to me, the controversy has to do with the other word in the title of this blog—“Reading.” And the importance of careful and attentive reading is what this blog has always been about.

According to various newspaper reports (and practically every newspaper in America, Ireland, England, and Canada has weighed in on this issue), Alan Gribben, chairman of the English department at Alabama's Auburn University, had become so frustrated teaching Huckleberry Finn because the word “nigger” is used over 200 times in it that he went to a small publisher, NewSouth, with the idea of replacing the word. Gribben told Publishers Weekly, "I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person, they said we would love to teach ... 'Huckleberry Finn,' but we feel we can't do it anymore. In the new classroom, it's really not acceptable."

The founder of the press immediately saw she could sell a lot of copies with this idea, admitting that “if we can get [Twain’s] book back into American schools, that would be really great for a small publishing company like ours.” Honest enough. However, Gribben’s justification for his decision is more than a little suspicious. He has said that Mark Twain was a notoriously commercial and populist author. “If he was alive today and all he had to do was change one word to get his book into every schoolhouse in America, he couldn’t change it fast enough.” That’s pretty damned presumptuous, it seems to me.

A few days ago, David Ulin of The Los Angeles Times (which is the paper I read every day) commented: “On its website, NewSouth notes that this new edition of "Huckleberry Finn" will not supersede previous editions of the novel: "If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain's works will be more emphatically fulfilled," the publisher declares.

“I don't know how that happens,” Ulin declared, “how debate is stirred by sweeping what disturbs us under the rug. Gribben ought to understand this; it's supposed to be in the nature of his academic work. As for NewSouth, with its politically correct agenda, it might be useful to go back to Twain.” It seems to me publicity and profit is more on NewSouth’s agenda than political correctness.

I grant you that “nigger” is a powerful word that refers to a shameful era in society’s past, not just in America, but in other parts of the world. There is no way to justify the treatment of an entire race that the word reminds us of. And we should be reminded. However, it is not just that horrible treatment the word references, but the taboo nature of the utterance itself.

Several years ago at the university where I taught, an older woman had returned to school to get her elementary teaching credential after the death of her husband, because she said she always wanted to teach. One day while doing her student teaching, she was engaged in a classroom activity in which one student had to be picked out of a group. To pick the student, she used the old counting rhyme, which goes:

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a (many variations here, e.g. tiger, monkey, baby) by the toe.
If it hollers, let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, you are it!

Without even thinking about it, she used the phrase she had heard in her own childhood, “catch a nigger by his toe.” When this was reported to the principal by an outraged parent, the woman was not only jerked from the classroom, but also forced out of the teaching program at my university. I often wonder what happened to her.

Recently, one of my favorite high school teachers, who writes a regular column for my hometown newspaper, which she sends to me, was reminiscing about childhood Christmases, and mentioned that one of her favorite stocking stuffers among the oranges and apples were large chocolate drops, which were referred to as, she could not say it, “nigger toes.” Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, I admit to using the same terrible term. My only excuse is the one folks I grew up with often used: "I just didn't know any better." I am sorry for it. We all know better now. But I am not sure it is helpful to be so frightened to admit our past mistakes that it seems as though we are trying to deny that they occurred. We should no more try to change history than to change literature to fit our current notions of what is "correct."

The fact that you cannot even use the word when you are talking about whether you should use the word is illustrated in a recent court case, in which a U.S. District Court judge has ruled that Tom Burlington, a former Philadelphia television news anchorman, can proceed with a lawsuit against WTXF-Philadelphia, Fox29, claiming he was a victim of reverse racial discrimination when he was fired in 2007 for uttering the word "nigger" during a newsroom editorial meeting.

U.S. District Judge Barclay Surrick wrote: "Plaintiff portrays himself as a victim of political correctness run amok, while defendants portray themselves as employers who made the only choice they could in response to an employee who repeatedly uttered 'the most noxious racial epithet in the contemporary American lexicon. Whether plaintiff was a victim of discrimination or his own poor judgment is for a jury to decide."

According to a newspaper account, here’s what happened: A Fox journalist was preparing a report on a local high school chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People holding a mock funeral to bury the word "nigger." Participants at the demonstration reportedly uttered the word "at least a hundred times or more." During the meeting to discuss the story, Mr. Burlington asked: "Does this mean we can finally say the word 'nigger'?"

The reporter said she wasn't going to use the word in her report and one of the three African-American journalists in the eight-person meeting objected to Mr. Burlington's use of the word. In his lawsuit, Mr. Burlington said he argued using the word would add credence to the news report. He said he "wanted to make the point that I felt if we're going to refer to the word 'nigger,' we should either say the word 'nigger' or refer to it as a racial epithet or a slur instead of using the phrase the 'n-word'. "

He later became involved in a heated discussion with Joyce Evans, his African-American co-anchor, who was not at the news meeting. She allegedly told him he could not use the word because he was white. Over the next few days, Mr. Burlington tried to discuss the issue with employees who were at the initial news meeting and repeated the word about a dozen times. In his lawsuit, the TV anchor said he did not use the word in its pejorative sense and had no intention of belittling or hurting anyone. But when he used the word again, when called in by the station's managers to explain himself, he was immediately suspended and ordered to take sensitivity training.

I have taught Huckleberry Finn many times. (N.B.: I wrote an article about the novel several yeas ago in which I tried to defend what critics call the weak ending when Tom Sawyer comes back on scene and trivializes the book’s social message, and I will be happy to send it to anyone of my readers who is interested; it was fun to write because it argues for the fantasy nature of the novel, citing a crypto-masturbation scene that Twain must have known he was creating) Anyone who has read Huckleberry Finn knows that Huck’s central conflict in the book is between his personal loyalty with Jim and his cultural and religious heritage that a slave is the property of his or her owner and that to protect Jim from being captured would not only mean he would be socially outcast himself, but that he would risk eternal damnation. In the most powerful scene in the book, Huck wrestles with this issue, but his friendship with Jim is more powerful than his cultural heritage, so in a declaration, the power of which must be understood in all its Bible Belt force, Huck decides in favor of the person rather than the policy and says: "All right, then, I'll go to hell,"

Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times this morning (January 8, 2011) called Professor Gribben’s replacing the word “nigger” with the word “slave” and the word “Injun” in the name Injun Joe with “Indian” an “offensive idiocy of vandalism masquerading as sensitivity” and said it was one of those ideas “utterly breathtakingly off the mark.”

Rutten then cited a Twain scholar, Judith Lee, who was this week quoted as saying she found nothing objectionable about the change, arguing that Twain’s use of the term was meant to be read ironically, but that an appreciation of irony was an advanced interpretative skill, and that for a general audience a bowdlerized versions would do just fine. To which Rutten rightly replied: “In other words, reserve the classics for sophisticated readers and give the masses Twain-lite. If you can’t imagine what Mark Twain would made of that dichotomy, you’ve never read him.”

Rutten also discussed a similar censorship issue at Monrovia high school, which has a highly regarded drama department, directed by a professional actor and teacher Marc Segal. This year Segal proposed the students put on Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Rent” as their spring musical. Last month, the school’s principal asked to see the script and then consulted with the district’s superintendent, after which she told Segal that “Rent” would have to be cancelled because: the play was not “family friendly” because it features “characters who have some dark issues they were dealing with.” Rutten, of course, pointed out that such a criteria would eliminate just about every play from “Oedipus Rex” (incest) to “Romeo and Juliet” (teenage sexuality). We can’t have students reading literature that deals with “dark issues.” Let them read about Lindsay Lohan and watch reality TV.

In the kind of newspaper serendipity that I love, The Los Angeles Times also ran a story this morning on the current meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA) the largest professional association of literature and foreign language teachers in the world, 8000 in attendance this year). Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA noted that the humanities are under greater pressure right now than they would be in economically better times. The problem may partly be the result of the misconception, she added, that English and foreign language studies do no prepare students for a range of careers, arguing that humanities are just as practical as any other major, especially during hard times when people need to be nimble about switching jobs. Well and good, but I agree with a Dartmouth American literature professor at the conference who argued that literature classes should not be justified only with arguments about student employability. “If you don’t begin with the assumption that literature itself is a repository of human values that human beings need, then we lose everything.” I would add to that, if we don’t begin with the knowledge that reading literature is a powerful skill that enables us to see through the superficiality and silliness of much of modern culture, then, yes, we could lose everything.

And then one more bit of serendipity, A few days ago, the LA Times ran a review of John Lithgow’s one-man show currently running in Los Angeles entitled “Stories by Heart.” In the show, Lithgow reads and “acts out” two stories: P.G. Wodehouse's funny bit of fluff, "Uncle Fred Flits By" and Ring Lardner’s darker satire “Haircut.” I discussed “Haircut” many times in my classes by way of teaching the concept of irony, a concept that critics of Twain’s use of the word “nigger” should be aware of. I wrote a short article about “Haircut” several years ago in which I tried to argue for the importance of a careful reading of the deeper irony in the story. I suggested that Lardner’s story is even more savage than we have heretofore thought, that his attack is not just on the horrible practical joker Jim Kendall and a small town’s lack of moral sense (as represented by the narrator, the barber), but even more on the reader’s willingness to approve of the extreme penalty for Jim as his just deserts for his practical jokes. The reader becomes as morally implicated in the death as the barber and the townspeople by accepting what was obviously their own use of the feeble-minded Paul to rid themselves of a troublemaker and prankster that they hated and feared. It is unfortunate that so many high school teachers fear they do not have the ability to teach irony to students, it is doubly unfortunate that a university professor would be willing to cater to that fear.

In my opinion, reading good literature is not easy, nor was it meant to be. Because literature is not life, but an artificial construct that makes use of language conventions to create some understanding of life, reading it carefully and correctly requires some training and knowledge of how language and literature work. To change a great work of literature because it makes some people uncomfortable is, of course, absurd. Literature should make people uncomfortable, and if high-school teachers are afraid to teach a great work of literature, then we should change the teachers, not change the work.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very intricate blog, author a super man! Desing is unruffled!

Molly said...

Absolutely fascinating entry. I love this blog and this special edition of sorts was captivating. Your thoughts are mine on this topic. Thank you for sharing all of your research and most especially your wisdom and passion.
Oh, and your Huckleberry Finn article sounds fantastic, I'd love to read it.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the kind words, Molly. I am so glad you find my blog worth reading. I will be happy to send you an email attached copy of the Huck Finn paper if you will send your email address to me at cmay@csulb.edu

Anonymous said...

Rational work, Charles.

I would love a copy of your article. Thanks.

I taught HF often but never enjoyed it. I was working at a secondary school where nearly half the parents were alcoholics and I was uncomfortable with the humor involved in the episodes with Huck's father.
Dex

Lee said...

Why are we always underestimating kids? A teacher should easily be able to explain the context of the word 'nigger'.

And there is a direct relevance to the short story. Take this passage from Barry Hannah's Testimony of Pilot, which I happened to be reading when the whole furore broke:

'In Mississippi it is difficult to achieve a vista. But my friends and I had one here at the back corner of the garden. We could see across the cornfield, see the one lone tin-roofed house this side of the railroad tracks, then on across the tracks many other bleaker houses with rustier tin roofs, smoke coming out of the chimneys in the late fall, Fijis was niggertown. We had binoculars and could see the colored children hustling about and perhaps a hopeless sow or two with her brood enclosed in a tiny boarded-up area. Through the binoculars one afternoon in October we watched some men corner and beat a large hog on the brain. They used an ax and the thing kept running around, head leaning toward the ground, for several minutes before it lay down. I thought I saw the men laughing when it finally did. One of them was staggering, plainly drunk to my sight from three hundred yards away. He had the long knife. Because of that scene I considered Negroes savage cowards for a good five more years of my life. Our maid brought some sausage to my mother and when it was put in the pan to fry, I made a point of running out of the house.'

Hannah was some writer!

Charles E. May said...

Yeah, Lee, I remember that scene from the Hannah story well. I have taught the story many times in my American Short Story class. Thanks for remind me about it. I agree that Hannah was a fine writer with a great voice and a carefully controlled style.

C.B. James said...

Fascinating post and a wonderful example of why I read your blog.

I agree with your larger points but disagree with this specific example. I have no issue with a publisher trying to make some money by doing this. Publishers are supposed to make money. In a free market, in a country with free speech and a free press, I have no objection to the publication of this book.

I won't be reading it. I suspect some people will, some schools probably will. But in the end the free market will come down on the side of the original text.

I have faith that Huck will win out in the end.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks for the comment, C.B. I appreciate your reading my blog. And I agree that publishers are in business to make money--but maybe not at the expense of slashing a classic. I appreciate the publisher's honesty in admitting that the primary goal in making the change was to get the book in more classrooms. However, I went back over the novel online and read every passage where the word "nigger" appeared. With the exception of one place, the change could be made without any vioilation of logic or syntax. However, the fact that Huck uses the word without any self-consciousness throughout the book is partially responsible for the impact on the reader when he makes his tough decision to "go to hell" for helping Jim. I am sorry that students who read the edited version will miss Twain's intended force. In spite of the professor making the change's cynical remarks that Twain would have sanctioned the change for the money,I feel sure that Twain would never have allowed the change to be made--regardless of how many more books it might sell. That, in my opinion, was a cheap shot on the part of my colleague.