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As parents, it is important for you to know what information your child receives, especially in the learning environment of a classroom. The thought of your child reading a racially offensive book is unacceptable. Some people find Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn racially offensive. If you as parents perceive this book to be offensive, it may lead some of you to request that teachers and administrators not allow students to read this book in school. I ask that you consider other options before taking this action. The actual reasons for the censorship of Huckleberry Finn depend on many other factors: fear of uneducated or insensitive teachers leading student discussions, school administrators who wish to avoid controversy and discomfort with acknowledging our country's painful history.
What some people find offensive about this story is the language Huck Finn uses. In the story, Huck often refers to Jim as a "nigger," which some groups find unnecessary and reprehensible. In the minds of administrators and teachers, there is an easy solution by using less-controversial books. John Wallace, a school superintendent, writes, "Pejorative terms should not be granted any legitimacy by their use in the classroom under the guise of teaching books of great literary merit, nor for any other reason" (18). Why are we afraid of these "pejorative terms," instead of explaining to students what they mean and why white people used to use them to address African-Americans? Yet instead of finding out why we worry if the children read a derogative term used commonly over a century ago, we ignore the subject and pat ourselves on the backs for saving children's minds. Huckleberry Finn addresses topics dealing with race which are still relevant today. We cannot expect to solve the racial problems today by banning literature that deals directly with these issues. Twain writes about a friendship between a slave and a white youth; he demonstrates the lack of reason behind racist thought. These topics are not harmful to African-Americans, and if taught correctly, can be a positive learning experience.
Instead of addressing these issues, administrators often remove the controversial book from the class reading list and replace it with another book. Former Justice William Douglas is noted for his concern with First Amendment freedoms on the Supreme Court. He writes, "The First Amendment does not say that there is freedom of expression provided the talk is not 'dangerous'.
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Parents often are afraid that insensitive, uneducated or racist teachers will also cause psychological damage by providing students with warped ideas about tense relations between blacks and whites. The fear is valid. Everyone remembers at least one teacher who gave false facts as truth or ignored a child's needs. Wallace says that Huckleberry Finn is dangerous racist propaganda even in the hands of the most skilled teachers. It doesn't have to be, nor should it be. In order to combat this, the administration must step in and educate the school's own teachers on how to effectively and sensitively teach a book such as Huckleberry Finn. Paul Blanshard, an author who has written several books on the topic of censorship, says, "Every parent wants his children to learn the truth about life. But since there are almost as many definitions of truth as there are parents in the world, the standard of truth applied in any local situation is likely to be the standard of the most vocal parents..." (86). John Fischer, former editor-in-chief of Harper's Magazine ,writes, anyone can attempt to persuade other parents or students to not read Huckleberry Finn, but to dictate what they can and cannot read is not beneficial or Constitutional (43). If teachers talk about the issues appropriately, they give their students a chance to put the language aside and decide for themselves what kind of characters Huck and Jim are, as well as learn the harmful effects slavery has had on this country.
If we let ourselves trust older students with complex issues, then perhaps we can allow ourselves to be comfortable with our painful past as a country. African-American author Richard Barksdale writes, "It is obvious that Twain's novel about the chance meeting of two runaways, one black and one white, is under attack today because many Americans, guilt-ridden over the racial divisions that continue to plague our society, have difficulty coping with the historical fact of slavery" (51). How does banning books such as Huckleberry Finn solve future problems? Students will likely come across this book later in their lives. If they have been prepared for the history behind it and the issues addressed in it, they will have a better understanding of it, as well as be able to intelligently discuss it. "The protection given speech and press was fashioned to assure unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by people" (16), writes former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. Maybe if we lead discussions on problems of racial tension and prejudice among students and adults, we will not feel so uncomfortable when reading a book like Huckleberry Finn. Instead we can understand it for what it is: a book that uses language of the past to illustrate white people's mistakes in the past.
The issues raised in Huckleberry Finn are not to be taken lightly or thrown at a seven-year-old child with no explanation or preparation. If we understand why we fear the book and address that fear, then we would not be so quick to ban it. We shouldn't shy away from open discussion and discourse, since it will be the best thing for us in this situation. By taking away from our students the opportunities to see different styles of literature, historical thought and the mistakes from our past, we deny them the right to see the full advantages of freedom of speech and press.
Barksdale, Richard K. Praisesong of Survival: lectures and essays. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
Blanshard, Paul. The Right to Read: The Battle Against Censorship. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.
Brennan, William J. Principles of Literary Censorship. Ed. Kingsley and Eleanor Widmer. San Francisco: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1961. 16-18.
Douglas, William O. Principles of Literary Censorship. Ed. Kingsley and Eleanor Widmer. San Francisco: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1961. 18-21.
Fischer, John. "The Harm Good People Do." Harper's Magazine. Oct. 1956: 40-45.
Henry, Peaches. "The Struggle for Tolerance: Race and Censorship in Huckleberry Finn." Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huck Finn. Ed. James Leonard, Thomas Tenney, Thadious Davis. Durham: Duke U Press, 1992. 25-29.
Wallace, John. "The Case Against Huck Finn." Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huck Finn. Ed. James Leonard, Thomas Tenney, Thadious Davis. Durham: Duke U Press, 1992. 16-24.