About this Blog

The title of this blog, "I'm About to do My Thing," was inspired by Jill Scott's introduction to her poem "The Thickness" from her live album Experience: Jill Scott 826+. In this intro, she warns that the content to follow is "real" and proceeds to deliver a beautiful message about self-esteem in young black girls, what can influence and damage that self-esteem, and the entire village's responsibility--"it takes a village"--to elevate its children.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Teach--Don't Delete

Huck and Jim sharing stories
You might have heard about the Auburn University-Montgomery Twain Scholar, Alan Gribben, whose forthcoming edition of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn replaces the word nigger with “slave.” (It does the same with Injun.) Gribben’s rationale, after teaching the text for years and finding that many students dismiss the text because of the word, is that this revision will open more students, parents, and school districts up to a text whose richness is being ignored because of one slur. He’s probably right.

He’s drawing criticism, though, from a number of sources. One of the main gripes is that this edit removes an important aspect of the text’s historical context, specifically America’s spotty past, and precludes an important teaching moment about racism and slavery in this country. As University of Virginia professor Stephen Railton puts it, “If we can’t do that in the classroom, we can’t do it anywhere.”

After all, is the classroom a place to avoid the hard lessons or to teach them? That’s not to say that it’s entirely up to teachers to convey the lessons of history to our children. Parents have to step in and educate their children about their heritage and America’s past. However, if teachers aren’t teaching these lessons, what are they doing instead? Huck Finn isn’t just about a boy’s adventure with an escaped slave. It’s a very mature tale about a poor white boy who can see past the prejudices around him to view a black man as a man and a friend.

Of course, it’s not all that sweet and pretty. Huck is definitely a product of his environment and the times, but he’s much more evolved than the adults who try to tell him what to do. And his use of nigger both highlights the idiocy of racism and undermines the social structure that would allow a friend to use the word in the first place.

I didn’t read Huck Finn until I had reached college—in many ways, it’s a very grown-up book—but young people could stand to confront the issues of racism that plagued our country way back when and that still plague our country today. By allowing children to compare and contrast their own world with that of Huck’s, teachers can have them grapple with these tough issues in (hopefully) a safe space centered on learning instead of avoidance.


  1. It's an interesting issue, to be sure. I actually had the opportunity to confront this issue Spring 2007 when I bought a copy of "The Best American Essays 2006" to use in my comp II class. I read the essay "Teaching the N-Word: A Black Professor, an All-White Class, and the Thing Nobody Will Say" by Dr. Emily Bernard (http://www.theamericanscholar.org/teaching-the-n-word/). The essay is about how Dr. Bernard responded when one of her white students in her African American Lit. class asked her, "How do you feel if we use that word?"

    One of my students in Comp. II was a young black woman from Los Angeles. When they were choosing topics to explore in their papers for the semester, this young, bright woman came to my office, panicked. "Ms. W, I don't know what to write about! I'm still really confused about this place [meaning Auburn] and I don't know what social issue is important to people down here!" I looked at her, trying to collect my thoughts, and i finally asked, "Well, what are some things about Auburn that are really different from LA?" She gave me the "are you kidding" face and said, "Well, like, for instance, there are SO MANY white people here and race is such a BIG deal!" I asked her what about race relations really seemed different about the South, and she said, "well...you know how...in rap songs...people say things...like...[here she whispered] the n-word...? Well, you get that a lot in LA, too, but here it's like maybe people mean it. And I don't get that, and it really confuses me." As soon as she said that, Bernard's essay popped in my head. I pulled it off my shelf and invited her to borrow the book and read the essay. See if she found anything compelling in it. I told her, "I want you to read this and consider what it is about saying the word 'nigger' [in my normal voice, and I had to fight from recoiling at the sound of my own voice] that is so disturbing." So, she read it.

    And then she came to my office, a fire suddenly lit under her ass to write these papers and voice her opinions. She said, "It's just a word, Ms. W! Just a word! Like all the other words; it doesn't really have any more power than any other word! But we gave it power, and that makes me so angry!" And she was so angry she was visibly shaking. Her anger wasn't that the word was still floating around in the air in some way, but rather that because we are afraid to say it at all it still has this immeasurable power over us.

    I think, like you're pointing out in this post, that's one of the biggest troubles with any racial slur at all. On the one hand, we teachers are expected not to feel bullied by words. We are the masters of words; we command them. I myself am even prone to say that words are powerless unless and until we empower them. But, then on the other hand, we immediately give those words power when we purposefully avoid them, right? Because in our silence, in our refusal to use them, there's an underlying message that we do not use those words because they are "bad" or something.

    I agree with you. We should absolutely teach Huck Finn in all its racist glory. But how? As a white teacher who has black students, I feel extremely uncomfortable saying the word "nigger" in the classroom for the simple fact that I have authority over my students as their teacher. And I don't want my use of the word to hurt my students. It's such a tricky choice to make.

  2. Great post, Mo, and great comment, too, A.Hab. I'm going to have to look up that essay now.

    I've been hearing about this for a few weeks, but I had no idea Dr. Gribben was the one editing this new edition! I'm conflicted about this issue for several reason. First, any sort of censorship terrifies me because censoring "nigger" could eventually lead to censoring any sort of hateful language from books(I'm thinking homophobic terms or anti-Semitic language esp.), and to deny that this language exists is to produce an idealized portrait of a world we know to be far from ideal. Like you said, I think it's crucial that we don't censor this kind of language and risk falsely representing the text or covering over the darker moments of history.

    On the other hand, as a teacher I understand how difficult it is to deal with these kinds of terms, especially in a middle or high school setting. In college, I think students are ready for this kind of discussion, and I don't really worry about what language they encounter--I assume they are adult enough to handle it, and we only discuss the language if it is pertinent to the discussion at hand. When I was teaching high school and junior high I came across this problem, though, because we often read stories out loud in class--and I often asked the students to be the readers. I remember in particular we read "Why I Live at the P.O." one day, and I had copied the story directly from Eudora Welty's story collection. I didn't read the story before class (a huge FAIL on my part, I admit), but I had read the story three or four times before. The difference was I had read the anthologized version before (which was apparently censored), so imagine my surprise when we were reading the story aloud and came to the word "nigger." It was unexpected and upsetting, and even though I was able to go on to have a good discussion with the students about language that day, that wasn't the discussion I'd planned on having or wanted to have. (It was a creative writing class and we were supposed to be looking at structure and narrative voice.)

    Like A.Hab, I've always said that words have no more power than the power we give them, so we shouldn't be afraid of words--but when I say that, I know I'm not being entirely honest. I mean that about "curse" words, but not about words that are hurtful and demeaning. I can think of just a handful of words that make me physically ill to say, that I still refer to as "the c-word" or "the n-word," and I'm not sure how to overcome this. How do you fully teach a text in the classroom when it disgusts you to say the words aloud? And I think that's part of the issue--for whatever reason, these words are far less acceptable when spoken aloud than they are written down and attributed to someone else, to a bad character or a historical figure. It's hard because there are so many important texts that are rife with difficult language, and in a classroom environment, that language must be dealt with aloud. I'm just thankful I'm not an Americanist and don't have to worry about ever teaching Huck Finn and deciding which version to teach.

  3. It's weird that you posted this, because I thought about this a lot today. I'm doing Twain with my eleventh graders, so he's on my mind, but a friend forwarded a link about this to me the other day.

    And you know how I feel about censorship, especially since I'll spend the next few months fighting parents over Fitzgerald, Miller, and Plath, just like last year. Some texts are historically and critically important, even when they have aspects that make you uncomfortable. I don't know that I'd teach Huck Finn to my current students, because it might be a little much thematically. Even Twain said he didn't write for children, and at my school, the juniors are in that category, which isn't entirely their fault.

    But the point I've always tried to make to parents/administrators is that students can learn more from a book that could offend them than a book that reinforces their beliefs. I think Huck Finn falls into that category--it provokes good discussion and helps students come to their own conclusions on things after hearing many perspectives. I totally agree with Railton (and A.Hab and Lacy); a classroom is a place to confront issues and long-held perspectives. And while it certainly isn't exclusively our job to teach the hard lessons, there are some students whose parents will never touch some of those lessons, either because they assume their example is enough or because they're too uncomfortable. Others have parents/families that use that kind of language all the time, and they've never been presented with a reason not to do the same.

    Still, I won't lie and say that I'm the kind of teacher who could use that word in a normal tone of voice. Every time I hear it (or any other of the "consonant words"), my heart squeezes a little. And I have no idea how I would read passages with it in them; my discomfort would show through more than anything I would be attempting to teach. I still haven't figured out how to teach Huck Finn for that reason; I'll have to in a few years, I imagine, since I can't only teach pop culture classes at the new job.

    Also, thanks for that link, A. Hab. That's a fantastic essay.

  4. I want to read that essay, too! Great discussion, all. I won't say anything about the word "nigger", which has featured in many texts I've taught, but I will say that I'm appalled that he's removed "Injun" from the text - to me, these racist and demeaning terms shed a sharp spotlight on the commonality of these words (and the ideas behind them) to our predecessors in this nation. And when it comes to "injuns," well, we all know how they are still treated. So for me, it's important to be able to point to historic and well-respected texts such as Huck Finn as examples of that deeply embedded colonialist and racist attitude that persists today. It is ever-present. And why on earth are we so invested in protecting kids from texts like this?! A good dose of conflict and reality at a young age might help them grow up faster for heaven's sake! And that might be a good thing instead of perpetually coddling young people and forever protecting them from the harsh truths of the world. My two cents, being neither a parent nor a teacher of younger kids. ;)

  5. This makes me think of something that is not really related but still presents and opportunity to teach versus avoidance. I recently saw 'The Vagina Monologues' at a theater in Clarksville. I have heard about it for years and decided to check it out.

    When I approached the theater, I noticed the marquee read 'The V Monologues.' I thought it was interesting but didn't dwell on it. As the program was introduced by one of the friends of the theater, he mentioned that many parents were concerned about the word "vagina" being displayed for young children to see, as if it's a profanity or slur. Shouldn't little girls know the name of their space down there? A moment to teach, not avoid.

  6. Thanks for the great discussion, all!

    To address my white teacher peeps--:-D--I suppose I never considered that some people really are uncomfortable forming the words in their mouths. And like Emily Bernard--thanks for the link, A.Hab!--I wouldn't want to push anyone to say something that makes them uncomfortable. From the teacher's perspective, I can see how his/her own comfort would be any important consideration.

    As a black teacher, I'm not bothered by using or hearing the word in the context of literary discussion. It's come up at least in my discussion of Frederick Douglass, if not with Harriet Jacobs, and I suppose I do feel some power over the word. The word itself doesn't affect me--in the right context. To say that I wouldn't be hurt if a person called me a nigger to my face would be untrue, but it's not off-putting to me in a classroom environment when it's relevant to a discussion.

    Interestingly, my white female freshman comp teacher had her all-black class write about the word nigger, after having read Randall Kennedy's essay on it and after having discussed it in class. I'd be curious to know how comfortable she was in the course of that unit. Like A.Mo, she started out as a journalist. Maybe that played a role in her confrontation of the subject.

    @ Dar: Very cool moment about a similar issue. Yet, "nigger" is a slur, while "vagina" is...a body part. Hmmmm....Lol.