January 6th, 2011

!shades of gray, shades of gray, !politics (shades of gray)

(no subject)

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.
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