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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

January 6th, 2011 (11:24 am)

current mood: thoughtful

When I was in tenth grade, Huckleberry Finn was on my English Honors curriculum. I'm pretty sure that it was the first day that the book was assigned that our teacher distributed an essay by a black academic who was arguing for the purging of Huck Finn from high school curricula, or, at the least, the censoring of it to remove the N-word. I don't remember a lot of her argument, because we weren't encouraged to consider it closely. Instead, the teacher asked us to read it, and then spent more than one class period vociferating about how terrible this idea was and how wrong this scholar, and everyone who argued against Huck Finn this way, was. Her point was the same that you and I have heard a thousand times since then, and which I personally agree with in principle: the repeated usage of the N-word in Huck Finn is an integral part of the language and social mores of the time, and an important thing to acknowledge and study. Forgetting, or erasing, the past is not the way to move beyond it. We know this. It seems so simple, so clear-cut. Certainly it seemed so to my tenth-grade English teacher. She was truly derisive in her response to the article, and to other points of view that she claimed she had encountered but that I'm not sure she wasn't making up for effect. When she said that a student had asked her the previous year, "Why didn't Huck just call Jim African-American?", well, I'm not sure that ever happened. Possibly the student was asking why the text of the book hadn't been changed such that Huck would call Jim African-American. But that student's question, as she recounted it, gave her a good springboard to explain why Huck wouldn't have used or perhaps even known any other words by which to refer to Jim. From there she moved to the main thrust of her argument, which was that focusing on this one word and taking it out of context led to a complete misreading of the book's purpose, which was anti-racist. In this I agree with her as well.

She opened it up to class discussion. It was a good class, and a vocal one. There may have been some students who argued a middle course, but I don't remember them. Mostly I remember the students who, like me, thought this was the most ridiculous thing ever, and who weren't shy about saying so. It was the kind of discussion that is always enjoyable -- the kind where you're positive that you're right, and everyone else is positive that you're right, and you're positive that they're right, and you get to go around talking about how right you all are and generally congratulating one another for your intellectual and moral acuity.

There was just one kid in the class who didn't agree. He was one of the few black kids in the room, the only black male, and, I believe, the only black kid in the room who'd grown up in a rough area of the city. He was a nice kid and a smart kid, but his argument didn't go over well in that class. He said he agreed with everything in the article we'd been given. That black kids shouldn't be made to read that word 200-whatever times in one book for school. That it hurt every time he saw it, and that he didn't think white people could understand the way that it hurt.

This, as I said, was pooh-poohed. He was misinterpreting it completely, he was told. The teacher explained why he was wrong. Another student in the classroom was particularly vociferous about it. He said all the same things other students were saying, but he said them loud, and often, this great articulate hurricane of passion and disdain. He was kind of a BMOC in the brainiac circles at my high school, good-looking and charismatic and outspoken, driven and dedicated but not averse to copying homework and take-homes from time to time (or more than time to time) either. His Huck Finn tirades were some of his more memorable. The next year, when my English class discussed Merchant of Venice and the objections to it/demands for its censorship based on its anti-Semitism, that student was likewise vociferous in his opinion that it was inappropriate to teach in schools. He was Jewish. I guess that made a difference to him. I will never forget the moment when another student in the class finally called him out by asking his opinion of the Huck Finn debate: "It's hard to say," he said, suddenly scholarly rather than passionate, all but stroking his chin. Incidentally, in college he considered an African-American Studies major -- I don't know if he carried that out, but I do know he's working for President Obama now. Interesting guy.*

Anyway, so he was the most vocal opponent of the kid -- let's call him Matthew here -- who thought Huck Finn should be censored or left off the curriculum. Matthew tried to keep his argument going, but it wasn't much use. Oddly, I actually remember turning my opinion around a little bit when I heard Matthew speak. I was in general a really conservative, black-and-white-minded person in high school -- kind of a brat, if I'm being honest -- but I guess even then I didn't like to judge other people or tell them their feelings were invalid right to their faces. And, honestly, I did know that I just did not know what it was like to be black. So I remember saying in class that I really didn't think that we white kids could understand what it was like for Matthew to see that word so often, that we didn't know the effect it could have. He thanked me, looking both startled and relieved to have someone on his side. Of course I went on to explain why that didn't mean the book should be censored, but whatever. At least I wasn't hurricaning all over him. In my memory. I hope he'd remember it the same way.

At the end of the class our teacher gave us our main assignment for the book: we were to write a paper assessing the black scholar's article and explaining why it was wrong. After class, Matthew went up to her and asked if he could write a paper assessing the article and explaining why he agreed with it. She pondered this for a second, then said no. He had to learn to argue convincingly even for points he disagreed with, she said. I didn't think this was fair, because no one else in the class had to learn this, and it just seemed too goddamn sensitive a topic to use for the purpose. Honestly, I was pretty pissed on his behalf by then.

Later that day, I had gym class with Matthew. We had a few minutes before the class started, and he and I were friendly, so I went and sat down beside him. "Hey," I said, "I just wanted to let you know I'm sorry about how English class went today. Ms. Bernstein was really out of line."

"Right? Thanks," he said.

"I think I understand where you're coming from..." I said, and then felt my cheeks flaming up. "I mean, I know I don't understand where you're coming from, obviously I don't understand, I mean, I can't understand, but I think I... I mean, I get... what you mean?" I was very graceful.

"Yeah... thanks," he said, after a pause. We sat there for a moment, uncomfortable.

"Hey, Elizabeth!" he said, all of a sudden, jumping up to wave to a friend of his -- a black girl. I watched as he ran over, hugged her, and then settled in with a group of black kids across the room. As in the lunchroom, kids tended to separate themselves out by race in the bleachers before gym class. I watched him go and felt a horrible sense of failure. He was a good guy, I liked him, and at that moment the racial barrier felt high as the Berlin Wall. I felt, probably not inaccurately, that I had done the lion's share of building it up that high in the course of our conversation.

To this day I've never totally shaken the sense of failure, and of awkwardness and helplessness, that that conversation carried. But I wrote the Huck Finn paper easily and got a good grade on it. I suspect Matthew did not write it nearly as easily, and that he did not get as good a grade.

At the end of the day, I am still opposed to the censoring of Huckleberry Finn. I do believe that it's impossible to read a book like that out of the context of its times, and that replacing the N-word (especially with "slave", which has not just a different connotation but a different meaning) jerks it right out of its context. I think that the repetition of the N-word is of course problematic, but that it should be taught, and the discussion should be had.

But it shouldn't be had the way that it was had in my tenth-grade English class. Or, I'd venture to say, the way it is being had in most public venues, blogs and Twitter and the mainstream media, right now. There is a reason that many black students say they hate this book or can barely stand to read it. There is a reason that it perpetuates so much outrage. The N-word, and the history it's a part of, just flat-out hurts for a whole lot of people, and if you can read the book with ease, you're not one of them. And if you can read the book with ease, it's not for you to dismiss the objections offhand.

What I worry about most is the fact that when the N-word is included in that book, all 200-whatever instances of it, the book either does not get assigned or else the students that it would hurt don't read it. We talk about how we have to teach the book because we have to understand this chapter of our history, and that's completely true, but we can't force it down people's throats -- I don't just mean we shouldn't, but I mean that we literally cannot. And I can't help wondering if it might not be best to publish an alternative, non-default version of the book that replaces the N-word, not with "slave" -- that word was clearly chosen in an attempt to use something that carries no pejorative associations at all today, and I think that it's absolutely ludicrous -- but something like "darky" or "colored", or even "negro", the N-word's parent, none of which would have been anachronistic and all of which convey some of our racist past without reading with quite the same hard slap in the face that the N-word does. Students who feel very strongly that they can't or won't read the version with the N-word could request a copy of the censored version.

I am not a fan of censorship, but I am a fan of people reading Huckleberry Finn. The book would be taught as usual; the kids would know there was a debate, know the N-word was present throughout, hopefully be taught why Twain would have used it. It's just that if a student comes up to you and tells you that seeing the N-word several times to a page is so upsetting and infuriating that they can't stand to read the book, I think it's better to give them another way to read it than to tell them to suck it up.

I'm not saying this is the best solution ever. I'm not even sure it's better than just assigning the book as is, to be honest. I do know that the existence of the N-word in that book can't be ignored. But the effects it has today can't be ignored, either. It's all part of the same troubled history, and I worry about what happens if we don't teach that history at all -- as some schools do not; Huck Finn has been dropped from many curricula, as noted -- because the worst of it sometimes seems too hot to handle.

I don't know if there was anything productive, in the end, in Matthew's being forced to read that book when he didn't want to, and being forced to swallow -- in fact, to voice -- an opinion he didn't agree with. I think in his case, he might have learned more from being able to read a version without that word in it. Maybe we all would have learned more if that option had been made available. More about trying to understand the racial divide in this country, rather than yelling at it.

I wish I still knew Matthew so I could ask him what he thought, today, with 15 years between now and that day that Ms. Bernstein made him read a book that it was painful for him to read and write a paper that it offended him to write. I wonder if he got anything out of it. I wonder if what he got out of it was anything good.

I wonder.


*I actually liked him, and still do, but man, blind spots.


Posted by: Damian (fanboy_of_zeus)
Posted at: January 6th, 2011 05:33 pm (UTC)

Well, one of the points I DID get about the book is that the whole point is that Huck seems like the least "civilized" of all the characters, but is most likely to do the right thing. So yes, in that light, having him use the more offensive term but without the full weight of prejudice behind it makes perfect sense. Polite language may be the mark of civilized society, but there's darkness and prejudice lurking in the heart of that society that no amount of pretty words can mask...

That whole concept of words versus intentions in the context of prejudice is starting to be a lot more relevant to my life than it used to be. There are people I've gotten to know on Twitter over the last year who will declare, quite vehemently, that anyone who claims not to be prejudiced by definition IS. I wouldn't take it quite that far - but I do feel that it would be a good thing to teach, particularly in the context of Huck Finn, the difference between racist (or other bigoted) words and bigoted actions.

Interacting with some of these same people on Twitter has also taught me that being sensitive to others' hurts is all well and good, but there are limits. There are people who will viciously attack anyone and everyone, and justify it by whining about how much the world has hurt them. It didn't take me long to learn that people like that are toxic. I don't think your classmate Matthew and others like him are in that category, and I'm all in favor of giving kids like him a curriculum that won't hurt them (I CERTAINLY think, at least, that it was awful and horrible to force him to write an opinion he found so offensive!), but...sensitivity to everyone's triggers is not the only thing that matters.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: January 6th, 2011 05:54 pm (UTC)

Again, everything you say is totally true (although I have a really hard time figuring out where to draw the line in being sensitive to other people's triggers vs. allowing myself to be completely cowed by them). One of my big worries though is that teachers who, with honest well-meaning, try to teach about the nuances of prejudiced words vs. prejudiced actions and taking things in context and all of those things that need to be taught in teaching Huck Finn will do what my tenth-grade teacher did and completely demean the people who are trying to explain some of the other nuances of the issue -- how badly words can cut even when they're not meant to, why it's important to try not to see solely through the eyes of the privileged. I guess my thought was that providing an altered version would acknowledge those things, and that since I just don't trust the majority of teachers to do that, it might be good to have an across-the-board system that does.

I suppose a far better answer would be for schools to use by default, not a censored text, but a critical-edition text including not just the book itself but essays containing different perspectives on the topic, and to have those be a basic part of the teaching of the book. Though, honestly, I still wouldn't mind there being a censored version at the end of that book. I think it could provide a good way of discussing the way the meaning of the book changes if the language is changed, and provide a firsthand way of experiencing the debate. I'd actually be interested in doing a compare-and-contrast on two versions of the text myself. Clearly it would change the meaning to substitute in "colored" or whatever, but I think it's difficult to gauge exactly how much and why until you've read the lines with the new language. And with the push to have a censored edition out there anyway, a critical edition with the real text, essays, and the proposed "new" text would be interesting, I think, and would perhaps be a good compromise. The big danger would be teachers not teaching the real version altogether because they're afraid to (the guy who put out the censored version, tellingly, gave as his first reason that he was afraid to say the N-word in class. The way he phrased it was not to indicate that he thought it would make the class uncomfortable, but that it made *him* uncomfortable. It's not about you, dude!) But I think right now a lot of them aren't teaching the book at all for that reason. So... God, I don't know.

But, yeah. Basically I worry that it will be ignored, and I also worry that if it isn't the objections to the N-word will be completely dismissed, as they were in my class. I know there's no good way to ensure that that won't happen, but maybe there are steps we could take that would help. A critical edition would be good. They totally exist, but my class read one of those cheap plastic-covered high school texts with no commentary at all.

Posted by: Damian (fanboy_of_zeus)
Posted at: January 6th, 2011 06:11 pm (UTC)

I think you're right that a lot of teachers and a lot of schools would fail to teach it well. That's going to be true no matter what, though, as far as I can tell. The stuff that needs to be talked about the most is HARD to talk about, especially without hurting SOMEONE in the process, and regardless of what options they're given - an optional censored edition, an edition with essays included, whatever - there will be plenty of teachers who fail to teach it well and plenty of students who refuse to study it.

I'm also trying to figure out what it is that makes a word "offensive" or "hurtful" to the point that its use should be generally avoided because it can be assumed that if it's used, someone WILL be hurt. And the N-word, yes, that one's well established as hurtful. But hanging out on the fringes of the trans community on Twitter, I've seen flamewars and witchhunts start over the slightest nuances of wording - "trans woman" versus "transwoman," whether it's offensive to say trans people "identify as" their chosen gender, whether "tranny" is or can be an affirmative word or if it's as bad as the N-word. And yes, behind each and every one of these debates are people who are actually being hurt by the words they're speaking out against - but where's the line? To what degree am I responsible for preventing their hurts? It's easy to cut the N-word out of a book, but what about when I can't find two people who agree on what's hurtful and to what degree?

...And yes, I realize I've wandered slightly off topic. Sorry.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: January 6th, 2011 06:27 pm (UTC)

No, you haven't. I think they're really important questions. I don't know where you draw the line either. I mean, I know that in talking to individuals, I don't use words that I know to offend that individual, but what do you do when you're speaking in a more public way and there may be people out there who will be offended by something that is less commonly offensive? I remember a giant flamewar that happened on my journal about "niggardly" -- someone high in the administration of a black college, I think it was, took offense to the use of the word, and then when it was explained to him that it didn't derive from "nigger", he said that people still shouldn't use it because it still means saying those syllables and they cause a triggery instant-hurt reaction. I expressed cautious support of/sympathy with that, at least to the extent that I said I wouldn't use it because I didn’t want to hurt people and because the sound associations seemed to be clouding the meaning of the word anyway (NOT TO MENTION that I have seen at least two columns by asshole conservatives whose headlines called Obama "niggardly" for no other reason than that, well, you know the reason as well as I do) -- well, anyway, I think my syntax is falling apart, but the point is that it turned into the bloodiest flamewar that has ever happened on my journal, complete with vicious personal attacks, comment deletions (not by me) and flounce. I'm still not sure I was right about that -- I totally don't know where to draw the line, but all I can say about that one is that I don't use that word anymore (well, not that I ever did, just because I don't particularly like it quite apart from its sound connotations), but others can do what they want. But... you know what I mean. The sound of "niggardly" is as triggering to some people as the actual N-word. To other people that's pure foolishness (unless, I assume, it's like one of those headlines). Whose reaction do you allow to influence you? Your own determination of what's right has to be the final arbiter, but to what extent do you incorporate others' feelings into that? What about "Oriental" (note: I definitely don't use that), which is almost universally considered to be not cool these days, but which some people staunchly stand by because they say it's an indication of a region that isn't synonymous with "Asia", so they use it when they refer to what is literally "the Orient"? How different is that from the "niggardly" debate, and how do you respond? It really is all part of the same debate, I think. I tend to be as careful as I can, but you know, they're all surface words. I have to remember that doing things like saying "Latino" instead of "Hispanic" is a gesture towards -- well, I guess in that case mostly towards accuracy, since most "Hispanics" are not from Spain -- but anyway, that's the "proper" word in progressive circles, but you can't just say that and automatically not have any latent racism in you at all. Meaning, intent, respect for others... they all sound so simple and yet can get really complicated.

Posted by: Damian (fanboy_of_zeus)
Posted at: January 6th, 2011 07:09 pm (UTC)

Well, the original topic was censorship and historic racism, right? And their respective places in academics? I've definitely diverged from THAT. And the parallels don't entirely hold, either. The African-American community's been around for a while, and has had a chance to come to a consensus on (and the rest of America's had a chance to get used to) what is and is not generally considered offensive. That might be a case where they SHOULD expect that things such as public school curricula ought to be changed to reflect that consensus. The trans community, on the other hand, is still getting its feet under it and trying to figure out how the relevant language ought to work. The rights and wrongs of language and offense are a lot murkier.

I guess what I'm saying is that, since there IS a general consensus that the N-word is offensive, I can see making a case for its removal. I don't like censorship, and I do think it'd be better to leave the controversial material in place in order to better understand it, but I can see making a compelling argument for taking steps to blunt its impact. And all that stuff I said about not knowing where the line is, not knowing how far I should go to avoid giving offense - well, I may not know exactly where the line is, but I know that the N-word is thoroughly on the far side of it (unless the "this is so bad I should avoid it" side is the near side, with how I worded things earlier? I don't know). That much ground, I feel I can safely yield without fear that everyone will demand I stop using their pet triggers (which is seriously tap-dancing on quicksand territory).

It does get really complicated, particularly since there are plenty of people who will assume malicious intent unless you make it absolutely clear that you're trying to be respectful. And partly my rambling about it is me venting about my own set of triggers that I've started to develop; these people are becoming a bigger and bigger part of my life, and there are land mines EVERYWHERE. There is no word or phrase relevant to trans people that won't offend someone. Everyone's set off by something different, and even the things that make sense are things that one wouldn't have any way of knowing without being told - and if one has to ask, or (gods forbid!) gets it wrong, one is forever labelled a bigot. I've only had to deal with it for six months or so, and I'm already sick of it.

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