Huck Finn, Racist Language, and Teaching

First published in 1884 and still an intellectual adventure, relevant to kids today  …

“That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it.” ― Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the story of a free-thinking kid, Huck Finn, and a slave named Jim, both of whom choose to flee their oppressive lives.

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The two set out on a trip down the Mississippi River that is filled with adventures and experiences that are unique to the particular class of characters and setting of the mid-nineteenth century. The novel’s title is sometimes extended to include Tom Sawyer’s Comrade to indicate to readers that this is a companion novel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, told as a first-person narrative from Huck’s point of view.

This year, I am teaching 10th and 11th grade language arts. I hadn’t revisited this novel, or the work of Mark Twain, in years. So this current leg of my journey includes helping students identify literary elements and analyze characters. I am teaching them to use comprehension strategies to make connections and draw conclusions, and define unfamiliar vocabulary words. They also create a character analysis presentation for this unit’s portfolio assessment.

While it might seem like a universally accepted staple of American culture and language arts classrooms, the book, as well as Twain’s work in general, has drawn considerable controversy. As recently as December 3, 2016, we see:

A Virginia school district has pulled copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from classrooms and libraries while it weighs whether it should permanently ban the American classics because of the books’ use of racial slurs.

School district weighs ban of ‘Mockingbird,’ ‘Huckleberry Finn’ after complaint

In my classroom, instead of banning the book, I first offered an alternative text for anyone who had objections: Of Mice and Men as an alternative. And  gave a Heads-Up:

The dialogue in both novels includes profanity and racially offensive terms. Although this language may be upsetting to some readers, it is a realistic representation of the characters and setting of Twain’s and Steinbeck’s novels. You may wish to preview the book and discuss the language with me before proceeding with the lessons.

I have about 100 students reading it. There were no objections.

And I like this synopsis from Publisher’s Weekly that puts the book and its language in context:

Considered the first great American novel, part of Finn’s charm is the wisdom and sobering social criticism deftly lurking amongst the seemingly innocent observations of the uneducated Huck and the even-less-educated escaped slave, Jim. William Dufris’s voice, unpretentious and disarming, like the book’s main characters, seems the perfect armature on which to hang this literary strategy. Although he does an expert job with the entire cast, Dufris’s delivery of Jim’s dialogue is his crowning achievement. Out of context, Dufris’s Jim might sound mocking and racist, due to his expert delivery of Twain’s regional vernacular. Ignorance and intelligence, however, are not mutually exclusive, and taken as a whole, Jim’s mind and heart come shining through, allowing the listener to reflect on their own assumptions.

Have you taught the work of Mark Twain to young people? How did you set up the discussion? How did you handle the wide variety of complex themes that could possibly be addressed? Did you offer an alternative text? Finally, how did you measure learning?

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth” ― Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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