July 23, 1995 in Nation/World

The Adventures Of Teaching Twain Instructors Learn To Defend ‘Huck Finn’ From Raft Of Censors

Associated Press
 

Banned, reviled or labeled as racist ever since it was published, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” remains a difficult work for teachers to explain to young readers.

Now, keepers of the house where Samuel Clemens wrote his novel are coming to the rescue. The Mark Twain museum will serve as a school this week for educators to learn how to teach and defend a book that uses the word “nigger” more than 200 times.

With the American classic being banned by a different school district nearly every year, museum officials said it was their duty to help those on the front lines of the battle: high school teachers.

“It’s more than just a book that we want to be able to keep on the syllabus. It’s a weapon in the battle against racism that we can’t afford to take out of our classrooms,” said Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an American Studies professor at the University of Texas and one of the five scholars who will lead the program.

Twenty-five teachers from Connecticut, Philadelphia and Rhode Island plan to attend five days of lectures at The Mark Twain House, where Twain lived while writing seven of his major works. The museum also is putting together a teaching kit to help educators and send to districts where the book has been banned.

Museum officials began organizing the seminar after a New Haven middle school banned the book this spring, and it was dropped from some reading lists at the National Cathedral School, a prestigious Washington, D.C., private school for girls.

“It just seems that it was the responsibility of the Mark Twain House to help educate teachers on how to use this book to combat racism and to show that Twain was very much against the concept of slavery,” said Debra Petke, the museum’s education director.

Even before the advent of political correctness, the book that Ernest Hemingway said “all American literature comes from” caused a stir.

It was first banned in 1885 in Concord, Mass., a year after its publication. Townspeople thought the pipe-smoking, insolent Huck was a bad role model - a 19th-century version of Bart Simpson.

Since the start of civil rights movement, the novel has drawn fire for its treatment of blacks and use of the word “nigger.” Critics also say the book reinforces negative stereotypes of black people through its portrayal of Jim, a slave.

Predominantly taught in the junior year of high school, its use has been challenged in schools and libraries across the country.

The banning in New Haven came after educators said students were reacting badly to the word “nigger.”

“Until you live in black skin, you don’t know how this feels,” said Marcella Flake, a teacher whose 14-year-old son first protested the book.

“I wouldn’t bring anything into my classroom that would make any of my kids hang their heads in shame.”

But the scholars who plan to speak at the seminar said if the book is taught correctly it serves as a scathing critique of prejudice.

David Bradley, an English professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, likens the book’s role in an English class to that of algebra in math class.

“If you haven’t read Huckleberry Finn, then you haven’t read anything,” said Bradley, who is black. “You can’t not teach it. The issue is, when do you teach it, and in what context can you present it so it can be understood?”

Bradley said Twain’s use of a boy as the narrator confuses many students and teachers.

Scholars say readers need to differentiate between Huck’s voice and the reality being presented by an author who uses satire to show his contempt for prejudice.

Bradley said “nigger” is simply the word a boy like Huck would have used for a slave. “What do you expect him to say? What word are you going to use? They did not call people African-Americans,” Bradley said.

The story was published two decades after slavery had ended, but set in the 1840s, prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. Through Huck Finn’s story, Twain sought to show that not much had changed for blacks, the scholars said.

Barbara Wojtusik, who will be attending the seminars, has been teaching “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for more than 15 years in the Bristol school system outside Hartford.

She often sees black students squirm when they see the word “nigger” in the first chapter, but most get beyond that and see the “biting social commentary,” she said.

Huck Finn in the hands of an unskilled teacher can cause great harm, warned Jim Miller, an English professor at Hartford’s Trinity College, and one of this week’s lecturers.

The inability of some teachers to explain how irony works, and the difficulty students have grasping it, can spell trouble, he said.

Bradley said those who claim the word “nigger” will spark racial clashes in their schools already have problems.

“It well may be the match to your powder keg,” he said. “But you don’t spend the rest of your life trying to avoid matches.”

xxxx GETTING THE MESSAGE Examples of irony and anti-racist messages in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”: Near the end of the book, the slave Jim helps save the life of Tom Sawyer, and Huck describes the reaction of onlookers. “So every one of them promised, right out and hearty, that they wouldn’t cuss him no more. Then they come out and locked him up.”

Huck, who befriended the escaped slave, agonizes over a note he has written to turn in Jim to his owner, worried that it would be a sin not to. “I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ - and tore it up.” Associated Press

© Copyright 1995 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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