English III Honors
4 December 2017
Huckleberry Finn Controversy
The ongoing controversy surrounding the decision to ban the novel Huckleberry Finn from classrooms has been in existence since its publication in 1885. The presence of the N-word has made many readers uncomfortable, however the word truly enhances the story’s powerful message regarding slavery and racism. According to “Huck, Jim, and Racial Discourse”, “If we attend closely to Twain’s use of the word, we may find in it not just a trigger to outrage but, more important, a means of understanding the precise nature of American racism”. Twain attempted to portray the African American history as realistically and accurately as possible, and the N-word is simply part of southern culture. Race continues to be a divisive subject, but regardless Mark Twain’s writing should not be penalized due to culture. The language used throughout the novel is appropriate for the time period as people would not have referred to African Americans in any other way. Rewriting racial labels does not erase racism or change American history. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain should not be banned in schools because it is a thought provoking novel that encourages modern day students to understand southern culture, specifically the realistic portrayal of racism, during the early 1800’s.
The word is in the novel for a reason. Twain used the N-word to grasp our attention, and every time we read it, it does exactly that. To resolve the controversy regarding the demeaning terminology present in the story, the N-word was replaced with ‘slave’ to “clean up” the overall language. By using the word slave, readers may be less bothered, however Twain wanted people to be slightly disturbed. After Huck plays a practical joke on Jim regarding their separation due to the fog, he is truly remorseful. Huck expressed, “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwords, neither” (Twain 89). This scene does contain racism, however it is impressive for a character to apologize to an African American, especially under the circumstances of the time period. Using the N-word indicates the discourteous attitudes Americans possessed, and enhances the inferior state of mind toward African Americans. Despite this, younger generations are becoming increasingly less racist. The world is becoming more tolerant and open minded, so the presence of the N-word and the discussion that ensues should be less of a struggle. One of the reasons the word is so powerful is due to the humiliation attached to it. No one wants to relive events from the past, but depriving teenagers of real world exposure and language is equally harmful.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a novel for mature teenagers and adults. Racism, discrimination, and slavery are topics that are, and will continue to be, sensitive. The novel incorporates many of the same issues involving racism and intolerance that we grapple with even today. This literary work challenges one to think about the effects of slavery and society’s complex morality. Being challenged within school is part of the experience, so replacing the novel with something easier would not have the same outcome, in terms of education. Furthermore, America’s most important freedom is the right to express one’s belief. No one can take away Mark Twain’s freedom of speech. His usage of the N-word is not intended to offend the readers, rather his goal is to accurately portray the past and the treatment of African Americans. A prime example occurs when Huck fabricates a story to explain his late arrival to the home of Aunt Sally and Silas. He describes the boat’s engine trouble, specifically the cylinder-head malfunctioning. Aunt Sally shockingly declared,
“Good gracious! anybody hurt?”
“No’m. Killed a nigger.”
“Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt” (Twain 223).
Aunt Sally serves as a symbol for the perception of slavery in the South. Slaves aren’t considered people and Aunt Sally’s lack of sympathy reinforces this concept. Twain strategically addressed the legacy of slavery prior to the Civil War and persistent racial discrimination after. He did so in the voice and consciousness of a young boy, a character who was forced to accept the cruelty behind the slaveholding culture. This ultimately gave the novel its power and title of literary greatness, which stems from its ability to provoke and disturb readers. A critical turning point early in the novel occurs after Huck returns to Jackson Island disguised as a girl. Huck frantically exclaimed, “Git up and hump yourself, Jim! There ain’t a minute to lose. They’re after us!” (Twain 64). Huck decides to go against his conscious and help Jim, a runaway slave, instead of turning him in. Huck’s choice of words are especially important because he does not say the slave hunters are after Jim specifically; he says they are after “us”. Twain incorporated a positive relationship between Huck and Jim, which reinforces his neutrality regarding African Americans and white people. Twain was not intentionally causing offense or irritation; he simply was writing a realistic masterpiece.
The N-word has a completely different connotation than ‘slave’. One is used to portray the racist subjugation of African Americans, and one refers to the revocation of human rights. High school students hear derogatory terms in songs, movies, on television, and they will hear it in college and real life. Instead of focusing on the presence of one word, it is important to discuss the tensions that exist from the word within the novel. Samuel Clemens was able to realistically portray these tensions, as many of the adventures Huck partook in, were actual events in Clemens’ childhood. Clemens witnessed the drowning of one of his friends, discovered the mutilated body of a fugitive slave, and watched a man die after being shot by a local merchant (“Mark Twain”). Mark Twain’s usage of the N-word was predominantly focused on enhancing the message of the novel, and encouraging readers to open their eyes to the culturally condoned atrocity of slavery. The language chosen for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was intentional and should not be altered based off of discomfort.
“Mark Twain.” History.com, A Television Networks, 2010, http://www.history.com/topics/ mark-twain?scrlybrkr=bd11a3db.
Smith, David L. “Huck, Jim, and Racial Discourse.” The Norton Sampler: Short Essays for Composition. 8th Edition. 2013.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.