Friday, July 31, 2009

Topic: Huck Finn

10-second review: Why the authors would never use Huck Finn as required reading in a majority white school with a small minority of African-American students.

Title: “Shoot the author, Not the Reader.” M Franek and N NiiLampti. English Journal (July 2005), 20-22. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Summary: The authors begin with the following quote: “We think that Huck Finn is an important work of art that should be available in every library I the world, but we don’t think that it should be required reading in any predominantly white high school where African American students are in a small minority.”

The authors then show that Twain’s novel is historically inaccurate, that Jim is a stereotypically illiterate black man with the mind of a child, that Huck is a stereotypically superior white boy who plays jokes on Jim that are downright dangerous, given the times when runaway slaves were subject to violent capture. And then there’s the N-word, more than 200 times, and in the context of pure white hatred.

How would you feel as a minority black in a white school with whites all around your classroom, conscious that you are the only black person in the room? That’s not a rhetorical question. How would you feel?

Comment: I agree with the authors of this article. I would never make Huck Finn required reading in a majority white school with a small minority of black students.

I’m reminded of a biography of Robert Kennedy by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Kennedy asked to meet in a hotel room with some of the most famous of black American citizens. Kennedy’s purpose was to discuss solutions to the problems of race in America. The black citizens in that room wanted only to tell their stories of their experiences so that Kennedy could understand what their experiences had been. Kennedy kept trying to shift the discussion, which became more heated by the moment, to solutions, and the black citizens just as adamantly wanted to tell their stories. They finally, in a burst of anger, left the room, with Kennedy wondering what he’d done to anger them.

Kennedy’s problem was failure to listen and failure to communicate. Reading Huck Finn will not help whites understand the experiences and problems of the black man in a white America. Some of those stories will be found in The Best American Essays of the [20th] Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan, 2000.

Why should students read Huck Finn? A portrait of the times. The humor. The characters. As an example of a picaresque novel. But it should be balanced by such works as Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and many another essay from The Best American Essays of the Century. A summary of King’s letter follows:

Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Letter from Birmingham Jail." 1963. In a letter that I think is as eloquent as anything I have ever read, King responds to white clergymen who criticize him for engaging in nonviolent, peaceful protest that results in violence and who urge black people to wait patiently while white society adjusts to accept them. In response, King quotes Aquinas and Martin Buber. He uses scathing logic. He uses plain statement of the treatment of blacks by whites. His message is, Why are not you, the white religious Christians, joining us in the march to justice on behalf of your black brothers to fulfill the Constitutional guarantees for its citizens? RayS.

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