New Jersey lawmakers want schools to stop teaching ‘Huckleberry Finn’ – By Matt Friedman (Politico) / March 21 2019
Two African-American members of the state Assembly have introduced a non-binding resolution calling on school districts in New Jersey to remove “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn“ — widely acclaimed as one of America’s greatest literary works — from their curricula.
There has been a decades-long debate over teaching the book, which was written by Mark Twain in the 1880s. Though filled with what many academics see as anti-racist and anti-slavery themes, “Huckleberry Finn” presents an unvarnished depiction of the antebellum South and includes use of the the n-word more than 200 times.
“The novel’s use of a racial slur and its depictions of racist attitudes can cause students to feel upset, marginalized or humiliated and can create an uncomfortable atmosphere in the classroom,” reads the resolution, NJ ACR225, by Assembly members Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer) and Jamel Holley (D-Union). The resolution also notes that school districts in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Minnesota and Mississippi have removed the book from their curricula.
The book, fans have long noted, includes racist language and stereotypes, but often portrays the characters who buy into them — at least those who, unlike protagonist Huckleberry Finn, do not change — negatively. Jim, the runaway slave with whom Finn forms a friendship, is often depicted positively.
Reynolds-Jackson said in a phone interview that she decided to introduce the resolution after a student in Hopewell was charged with cyberbullying over racist messages and lynching threats he allegedly made to black students over Snapchat. While the book was not involved in that controversy, Reynolds-Jackson said she wants to use it as “a teachable moment.”
“There are other books out there that can teach about character, plot and motive — other ways besides using this particular book for that lesson,” she said.
The book sparked controversy as soon as it was published, with some libraries refusing to carry it — though back then the uproar was largely over the book’s alleged crudeness. The current concerns over racial insensitivity have arisen in recent decades.
According to the American Library Association, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was the 14th most banned or challenged book between 2000 and 2009.
There have also been challenges in New Jersey.
For instance, in 1996 the book was temporarily removed from the curriculum in Cherry Hill as parents and faculty discussed how to approach teaching it. They ultimately settled on a workshop in which teachers would be given “historical, cultural, and literary resources to see the novel in a new light,” according to a PBS report.
It does not appear as though the New Jersey Legislature has taken up the controversy — at least in the last 30 years. POLITICO searched for bills dating back to 1988 with “Huckleberry Finn” as a keyword, and nothing turned up.
The Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison wrote that the first couple of times she read “Huckleberry Finn“ as a child, she felt “fear and alarm” and “muffled rage.” But, she wrote, she came to appreciate it in later readings, and called efforts to ban the book “a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children.”
Morrison praised the book for “its ability to transform its contradictions into fruitful complexities and to seem to be deliberately cooperating in the controversy it has excited.”
“The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises,” she wrote.
There have been other attempts to deal with the book’s strong language. In 2011, a publisher announced an edition of “Huckleberry Finn“ in which the n-word was replaced with the word “slave.” But many critics derided the “sanitized” version as censorship and ignoring the nation’s racial past.
Free speech advocates have long argued against schools dropping “Huckleberry Finn“ and other literary classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird,“ which also includes instances of the n-word, from their curricula.
Nora Pelizzari, communications director for the National Coalition Against Censorship, said her organization has fought attempts to ban “Huckleberry Finn“ since it was founded in 1974. She said that while the New Jersey resolution is non-binding, it “encourages individuals in communities and emboldens them to challenge the book.”
“Educators should be the ones who decide if a classroom can provide sufficient context and promote the kinds of discussions a classroom would need to have around reading a book like ‘Huckleberry Finn,‘“ she said. “It shouldn’t be for the Legislature to issue kind of a blanket ban, even if it’s non-binding.”
Pelizzari said a classroom is “precisely the kind of place” where the book should be discussed so it can be put in proper context. And, she said, “you’re putting students on a backfoot if you’re removing canonical texts that are a basis for a lot of American literature.”
The Assembly resolution by Reynolds-Jackson and Holley states that the book’s inclusion in school curricula “in effect requires adolescents to read and discuss a book containing hurtful, oppressive, and highly offensive languages directed towards African-Americans.”
While the resolution does not state that “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn“ is a racist book, Reynolds-Jackson — who said she read it “many years ago“ — believes it is.
“I think this is a racist book,” she said. “I think in the climate that we’re in right now, where you have a president that is caging up our children and separating us in this way, I think to use this book in this climate is not doing the African-American community any justice at all.”
However, Reynolds-Jackson acknowledged that several teachers she spoke with like teaching the book.
“I think you have to make sure you have a strong instructor to lead that conversation and those technical skills in developing our students,” she said.