My colleague Jeanne Torrence Finley has been writing about art and justice on her new blog Tell It Slant, (which you should definitely check out). Today she joins my defense of Huck Finn by discovering an oddly-named defender of satire in literature:
When Alex wrote on February 18 (“In Praise of Uncomfortable Books: Huck and Harper Revisited”) about the decision by the Duluth, Minnesota school district to remove Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from required reading lists, I knew I couldn’t keep quiet. As a writer and former English teacher, I don’t understand censorship of two of the most clearly anti-racists books in American literature. Expanding the curricula of schools toward diversity is essential, but it doesn’t require banning books like Huckleberry Finn, which is all the more remarkable in its denunciation of racism because it was first published in the U.S. in 1885.
Earlier this month I had written an essay for the publication FaithLink* called “Religious Satire” and included Mark Twain as arguably the greatest American satirist. In the research for my essay I couldn’t resist going to my favorite literature website, Shmoop, and watching the short videos on satire on their ShmoopTube (a.k.a. Where Monty Python Meets Your 10th Grade Teacher). I found three videos about Huck Finn that I wish school board members in Duluth would watch:
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (2:33) informs viewers that Huck Finn has been on the top 100 banned books in the U.S. for several decades and frequently makes the top 10. The main reason for the novel’s notoriety among censors is that Mark Twain wrote in the vernacular and used offensive language–specifically the N-word–219 times. Yes, bad boy Huck started out a racist. He learned it from his culture but he changed. His spiritual journey with the slave Jim parallels their journey down the Mississippi. If racist readers commit to that journey with Jim and Huck, there’s a good chance they will change too.
“American Literature: Finn: Racism” (5:44) makes the points that anti-racism is the point of this novel and that the novel takes on systemic racism. It’s pretty amazing that a white man born in 1835 in Missouri understood that racism is systemic and had the ability to put readers inside a racist society so that they could feel the offense. The video mentions that a publication of a version in 2011 replaced the N-word with the word “slave” and comments about that attempt to be less offensive: “It’s supposed to be an ugly word. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable. Hiding it just waters down what Twain was trying to say.”
“American Literature: Huck Finn: Satire” (5:38) explains satire in general, and the satire in Huck Finn in particular, as a way of exposing human foolishness and sin. It’s a way of learning ethical thinking from a poor, pint-sized, foul-mouthed runaway whose heart and mind are open to change.
It’s a way of learning ethical thinking from a poor, pint-sized, foul-mouthed runaway whose heart and mind are open to change.
Shmoop Tube videos are designed for 10th graders by grad students in literature who know how to “speak” High School Student and their humor is commensurate with their audience’s level of maturity. Nonetheless, I think adults who want to ban books, particularly Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird could learn a thing or two here.
*Though FaithLink is a curriculum available by subscription from Cokesbury, the essay portion of an issue is sometimes picked up and posted on the Ministry Matters site.
–Jeanne Torrence Finley