Jewish World Review Nov. 29, 1999 /20 Kislev, 5760
Expelling 'Huck Finn'
THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE CONFERENCE of the NAACP has instructed its branches to file grievances with the state's human rights commission
demanding that local school boards and district superintendents remove
Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" from mandatory reading
The charge, supported by the national NAACP, is that "tax dollars should
not be used to perpetuate a stereotype that has psychologically damaging
effects on the self-esteem of African American children."
Some years ago I was talking to African American eighth-graders in a
Brooklyn public school who had been reading "Huckleberry Finn" in class
-- along with the history of racism in such towns as Hannibal, Mo., where
Twain had grown up.
The students recently had been discussing the passage in which Huck, on
the raft with Jim, was tormented by what he had been raised to believe --
that he would go to hell if he did not report this runaway slave to the
Huck wrote a note doing just that, but finally, destroying the note, he said
to himself, "All right, then, I'll go to hell!"
"Do you think we're so dumb," one of the Brooklyn eighth-graders said to
me, "that we don't know the difference between a racist book and an
anti-racist book? Sure, the book is full of the word 'Nigger.' That's how
those bigots talked back then."
As Twain said years later, Huck, after writing the note, was struggling
between "a sound heart" and "a deformed conscience" that he had to make
"The people whom Huck and Jim encounter on the Mississippi" -- Russell
Baker wrote in the New York Times in 1982 -- "are drunkards,
murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynchers, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers,
numskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white.
The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is 'Nigger Jim,' as Twain
called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true
gentleman was held beneath contempt."
Michael Meyers -- assistant national director of the NAACP under Roy
Wilkins from 1975 to 1984 -- wrote to Julian Bond, the present NAACP
chairman, about the organization's desire to censor "Huck Finn."
Calling the book "a great anti-slavery classic," Meyers -- now the
executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition -- asked Bond
whether there is an actual NAACP policy "that encourages NAACP
branches to either support or seek book banning or censorship." Bond, as
Meyers noted in his letter, is on the ACLU's national advisory council, as is
the NAACP's president, Kweisi Mfume. If such a policy exists, Meyers
wrote, "what are you doing -- or what are you prepared to do -- to
change such a policy?"
Bond answered that "the NAACP does not have a policy for every
occasion. Might I ask you for a policy we might adopt that could allow the
NAACP to express outrage at racist expression while protecting free
Meyers was puzzled by the response because, he says, "Huckleberry Finn"
-- as the youngsters in Brooklyn emphatically understood -- is anti-racist.
In 1998 Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for a unanimous three-judge
panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, rejected a lawsuit by an African
American parent, who is also a teacher, asking that "Huckleberry Finn" be
removed from mandatory reading lists in the Phoenix, Ariz., schools.
"Words can hurt, particularly racist epithets," Reinhardt wrote, "but a
necessary component of any education is learning to think critically about
offensive ideas. Without that ability, one can do little to respond to them."
Part of learning to think critically about offensive speech is to understand
the context in which it is used.
Bond might consider sending Judge Reinhardt's decision (Kathy Monteiro
v. the Tempe Union High School District) to the Pennsylvania State
Conference of the NAACP. He might also inform it of "The Jim Dilemma:
Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn" by Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua, an
African American who has been instructing black and white teachers about
the book for years.
She writes: "Without the memory of what a word once meant and what it
can continue to mean, we as a society are doomed to repeat earlier
mistakes about ourselves, each other, and serious issues involving us
JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Ammendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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