Who’s Afraid of Huckleberry Finn?

by John Liechty

The 19 January Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled ‘Teacher Wants to Expel Huck Finn,’ with the tag line: “An African-American is about to be inaugurated as president. That leaves John Foley to wonder whether students should still read books that depict black men as ignorant, inarticulate, and uneducated.” Teacher Foley is quoted as having “a lot of passion” for Huckleberry Finn. His complaint is that every year the book “seems a tougher sell to the kids.” That is likely as valid as the complaint that every year, nourishment seems a “tougher sell” to kids. Yet there remain miscreants among us who persist in believing our children’s taste for molded nuggets of salt, sugar, and fat does not eliminate a duty to induce them to eat food. Such miscreants tend as well to believe that our children should read books – real books.

Huckleberry Finn usually offends those prone to offense for either “religious” or “racial” reasons. Foley’s main gripe involves the latter. Twain’s novel hosts a character called Nigger Jim, and according to Foley, now that “Barack Obama is president-elect of the United States, novels that use the ‘N-word’ repeatedly need to go.” (Note the English teacher’s dubious placement of the adverb.) Poor Mark Twain. If he’d only had the prescience to call his character N-word Jim, the tender buds of America could carry on reading. That Twain may have named his character in accordance with a reality he was endeavoring to depict… That Twain’s character may appear “ignorant, inarticulate, and uneducated” because Twain legitimately chose to depict a man who appeared ignorant, inarticulate, and uneducated… (Incidentally, Jim is uneducated but no one who’s understood Huck Finn would dare call him ignorant or inarticulate.)… That Twain may have said: “Our Civil War was a blot on our history, but not as great a blot as the buying and selling of Negro souls…” But the obvious is not good enough for Foley, who grieves that many of his students “never get past the demeaning word Huck uses to refer to his friend.”

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