Considering that a lot of high schools are racially mixed, strong discomfort ensues when classes dive into The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If teachers do not confront the issue of the novel's offensive language ahead of time, people are bound to get upset. In Cherry Hill, New Jersey, in 1995, a group of eleventh-grade black students boycotted the book because of its racist content. Pressured into making a change before these students flunked out of school, the district brought parents, students, teachers, administrators, and scholars together to remedy the problem. After a year of intense debate, they finally figured out a way to teach Huck Finn that addressed each group's concerns.
Although Huck Finn displays examples of alarming ignorance and racism throughout, the story also contains several of the most inspirational lines in American literature. When Huck decides that he'll “go to Hell” in order to save Jim, the reader sees that Huck's real beliefs differ from those of his contemporaries. The book must be read for what it truly is: a classic of American literature, and a satire of our country at the height of its ignorance and despair.
Many critics contend that Huck Finn's offensive language makes it too advanced for high school students. Minnesota English teacher Paula Leider argues that most people's lack of experience and knowledge of “what it means to be persecuted due to race” makes us incapable of understanding the offensive nature of the novel. This argument definitely has merit, and the language in Huck Finn often borders on excessive. For example, when Huck attempts to explain the fact that different countries have different languages, Jim stubbornly refuses to believe it. Huck gives up, saying, “you can't learn a n---er to argue.”
Huck's ignorance often surfaces, and his frequent use of the “n-word” certainly causes the reader to cringe. In a racially mixed classroom, this discomfort is magnified tenfold. Black critics of Huck Finn, including school administrator John H. Wallace, believe that the novel's excessive bigotry delegitimizes its message. The offensive language in Huck Finn certainly makes it a difficult book to read.
Although the argument against reading this novel certainly makes sense, many forget how influential and important The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was in our country. Critics often forget Samuel Clemens' strong views on slavery and abolition. They forget that he supported the liberation of slaves; he even paid for a black youth's education at Yale University. In an article in College English magazine, Lucille Fultz calls Wallace's criticism of the novel “self-righteous indignation.” Sadly, many critics refuse to analyze the novel and read Huck Finn for its intended purpose: to criticize America's despicable views of black people, and to offer a look at our hopeful, tolerant future through the eyes of a Southern boy.
When Jim gets mad at Huck for lying about his dream, Huck feels terrible. The process of “humbling [himself] to a n---er” presents Huck with a moral dilemma, but he does apologize, adding that he “warn't ever sorry for it afterwards.” This act portrays Huck not as an ignorant Southern bore, but rather an empathetic child slowly beginning to understand that the man he perceived as property and less than human actually has feelings and needs similar to his.
After reading The Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn, I believe that the way a teacher approaches discussing it is critical. Before beginning, the teacher must acknowledge the severity of the language. Taking a vote on the use of the “n-word” in class discussion could cut down on awkwardness in the classroom.
Despite the controversies, I believe that Huck Finn must be read in American literature courses because of the important role it played in our country's past. No classroom should skip Huck Finn; every English class can find a way to read this novel that meets their specific needs.