Posted by: Allyson | September 30, 2008

Banned Books Week, Day 4

Perennial English class text, part of the American canon, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn  is no stranger to censorship.  The book has been banned from the juvenile section of the Brooklyn Public library as well as being removed from the library in Concord, MA.  And even in recent years, schools have removed the books from their reading lists.  It’s number 5 on the list of 100 most challenged books between 1990 and 2000.  Most of these challenges are due to the fact that Twain makes liberal use of the n-word in the novel. 

Yes, Twain uses what is now an extremely derogatory term.  No, he does not really critique the institutions of slavery and racism.  But that doesn’t mean that we need to hide Huckleberry Finn from students.  Twain’s novel is a great example of what those of us in education call a “teachable moment.”  Use Huckleberry Finn to teach students about our racist history.  Use it as a primary text document to show that even more “progressive” writers such as Twain were nonetheless bound up in the institutions of slavery and racism.  How are students ever going to learn about our mistakes if we attempt to shield those mistakes?  Children need to know the wrongs we have committed in the past.  Children need to understand the extent of racism, and that it goes beyond slavery.  We could teach children about Huck’s unrecognized privilege, for example.  We don’t have to take the book at face value.  We can use it to show where we came from, the ways in which we have progressed, and how much work there still is to do.

(Note: Tom Sawyer has been banned as well, but because I have not actually read it, I’m not really addressing it here.  Commentary about Tom Sawyer is welcome if you have a perspective on the book.)

Crossposted at This is What a Feminist Blogs Like



  1. […] Letter to Judy Blume In honor of Banned Book Week I thought I’d write a letter about an author that was integral to my late childhood/early […]

  2. Of course he critiques the institutions of slavery and racism! I cannot imagine any legitimate reading of the book except a most cursory one that doesn’t bring that out. English professors don’t teach this book as an object lesson, they teach it as a creditable attempt at anti-racism in an extremely racist time, especially the unreliable narrator aspect of Huck. Please remember that everything that is SAID about black people is said by Huck, and at the same time is completely belied by the book’s actual events and plot. That’s the whole point.

  3. Also, thinking of incidences in the book which have been read against the actual grain of the text: when Huck and later Tom manipulate Jim, that’s another example of the ways in which privilege and racism operate in their lives, which is being demonstrated and not endorsed by the text. Twain wasn’t perfect but he was well ahead by contemporary standards. That’s not an apologia by any means but I do think we need to be fair to this novel.

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