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Commentary: Huckleberry Finesse

By Tom Dodge, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

A literature teacher at a Fort Worth area school got in the news for leading a discussion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a class with only one black student. He was embarrassed when the teacher wrote the offending word on the chalkboard and asked the student how he felt about it. The teacher was following a study guide provided by a school-approved committee.

The student's mother wants the book banned. But the student said that while he felt humiliated he was nevertheless willing to try seeing the merits of the book.

The school officials are said to be reconsidering the study guide.

The Huckleberry Finn controversy erupts often because of its use of the slur when spoken by whites. The matter is important because a literary classic and people's feelings are in collision. Banning isn't the answer. Everyone could be bettered by reading Huckleberry Finn.

It's too bad that education has failed to prevent a widespread misunderstanding of this book. It has became branded with the letter N. The book is a condemnation of racism and American institutions, especially churches and schools, that supported slavery. It was called "trash" when it came out in 1884 because Huck smokes and skips church and school. But the primary reason was that Mark Twain characterized Jim, a slave, as a person of dignity and morality, and as Huck's best friend.

Also, the author shows Huck's illiterate worthless father as the filthiest of racists. To this day, despite a compulsory education system, illiteracy is still a contributing factor to racism. If Mark Twain somehow were resurrected, with his cynicism about human nature intact, he would probably not be surprised to see that many schools and churches, small churches anyway, are still segregated for all practical purposes.

Two ways teachers can finesse the teaching of this book: First, have students write about the book rather than discuss it in class. It ought to be discussed in class only when there's a parity of racial composition, never when there's only one black student. Unless the black student happens to be Al Sharpton or at least someone mature and dominant enough to handle the situation.

Second: There ought to be black teachers for books like this. But failing that, the white teacher must be experienced enough to do the job right. I'm sorry to report that as a young teacher I showed a film called Black and White: Uptight to a class with just one black girl among a roomful of white students. The film analyzed racial stereotypes and showed them to be harmful.

After class several white students came to my office and said the student was embarrassed and very hurt. The shame I felt was so deep I never made the mistake again even though I taught Huckleberry Finn many times after that.

I did this by asking myself how I would feel if the novel being discussed in class were the graphically sexual classic, Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller. Everyone in favor of discussing the language of Huckleberry Finn in class with but one black student should try to imagine their teen-aged daughter as the only girl in a class of 20 boys while the teacher writes the sexual language of Tropic of Cancer on the board and asks the girl how the words make her feel.

Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.