Monday, June 20, 2011

Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn and the N word...

Some 125 years later, Mark Twain still stirs volatile debate..

Last week (6/12) CBS' 60 minutes re-ran a March episode on the topic of  Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Twain's use of  the N Word.  An author/professor, two English teachers from Minnesota  and a co-owner of a small publishing company from Alabama were interviewed for this segment.

The  teachers from Minnesota analyze and educate on the book  from different prospectives, purposely, proudly and by their beliefs.  One, Nora White  discusses the book as it is and says the word out loud to her students  while  another teacher, Karen Morrill examines the book but wouldn't speak the N word aloud during the classroom analysis.

Both teachers make valid points as some of their students see it has harmful, overused and unnecessary, while the others deem it a teaching point. But the teaching methods further the debate.

Randall Williams co-owner and editor of NewSmall books, a small publishing company in Alabama   makes the argument of discussing the topic with the word or without the word. One could leave the book as is and discuss it if comfortable in doing so but by publishing a revised version, which his company has done, now gives educational institutions and readers in general  an alternative. His revised version replaces the N word with  the word slavery.  Is that consider censorship? Although Mr. Williams makes valid points, I disagree with his editing of  Mark Twain. Leave fiction as it is, in its truest form instead of how we'd like or think the fiction to be. And don't ban it, use such literature works as educational vehicles. (Mr. Williams has sold many of the 7,500 copies of his revised version and has plans to continue printing.)

Twain wrote Huck Finn 20 years after the 13th amendment abolished slavery. It's a fact that Twain used the N word over 200 times in the book, one too many times or was Twain simply writing about a time in our history where it was part of our  culture and vernacular and a commonly used word of depiction and not being racist by using it frequently in his book?

Author  David Bradley, a professor at University of Oregon who has been asked by school districts to help discuss the book  makes the claim: get over it.  He has his students say the word several times at the start of the assignment. Get over it, he says, and  let's talk about the book.

He also makes a very good point, its the context with which the word is used.  The word is a teachable moment and as he opines, if you take every word out of a novel that is a teachable moment, you no longer have a teachable moment.

I agree with his interpretation. Each race in our society has it's own phrase or word to describe each other, Japanese, Italians, Caucasian, African, Mexicans, the origins of their slang depictions can also be put to debate.   But as Professor Bradley also raises,  does it seem okay when they're used within each race vs between each race? Bradley uses the example from comedian Jeff Foxworthy who humorously stated, you can't make jokes about a redneck unless you are one.

Remove the N word from Huck Finn and you no longer have Huck Finn as Professor Bradley puts it. I again, agree.Teach or examine the book as is for the purposes of understanding.  I think Twain could be telling a story about a young lad and his friend as they venture down the Mississippi river escaping  their own struggles; telling a story about a time when as part of our culture the word was used and  he's not necessarily making a point or teaching us any lesson about race, slavery or our society. 

Or is he? Did Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) have the clairvoyance to enlighten us on the element of race in our nation knowing that his book would continue to be discussed and argued? Did he take a stance on his own view of racism by writing the book?  One could make the case that it's about friendship, friendship between two people regardless of race or color. Huck Finn may not see race in Jim and only see Jim as a friend. Perhaps Huck teaches us more about race and not seeing prejudice then we think?

Either way, one of the greatest gifts we have is the freedom of speech and of press; freedom of   interpretation and healthy debate. Published in 1885, Huckleberry Finn is still banned in some schools, still debated and examined in our society. Search the Internet and you'll find multitudes of analysis and examination.

Throughout this post, I didn't use race as a way to describe each of those interviewed, for a reason... does one  have to use color  to characterize a person?    I've distinguished them by their profession, perhaps allowing for an unbiased interpretation of my blog.

 If I were to include color or heritage as a description of interviewers in my essay, would your opinion on the topic change based on their race or color?   Does the location in which each of those interviewed reside,  influence your opinion? Minnesota, Alabama and Oregon? Which person do you agree with?  Watch the replay on the web if you so chose, but tell me what you think either before or after you view it.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Original Unabridged Version

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