The purpose of this project is to celebrate Samuel L. Clemens' life in Redding, Connecticut by documenting and showcasing his time here in multiple formats both online and offline. Your donations & site sponsorships will help me dedicate more time to these projects and allow me to get them online sooner.

Sunday, April 10

Huck Finn With or Without the N-Word Debate

"Huck Finn With or Without the 'N' Word"
Presented by the Greater New England Alliance of Black School Educators in collaboration with The Mark Twain House & Museum

On Saturday, April 9th a diverse group of open-minded individuals gathered at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford to discuss the 'N' Word, and its usage in Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The goal of the program was to gain insight on a topic which has gained intense cultural interest with the recent release of Alan Gribben's edited or "southern" version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn which replaces the word "nigger" with "slave".

The planning committee of this event should be commended for their panelist selections. Dr. Kerry Driscoll (St. Joseph College), Timothy Floyd (Waterbury Arts Magnet School), Craig Hotchkiss (MTH&M Education Program Manager), Frederick Douglass Knowles II (poet-activist-educator at Three Rivers College) and moderator Thomas Smith (retired English AP Literature at Weaver High School), were all amazing.

Dr. Driscoll provided expertise on Twain, the novel and how she prepares future teachers to teach it in their classrooms; Timothy Floyd provided a very much needed first-person viewpoint of both his recent experiences defending the artistic usage of the 'N' Word along with his personal feelings as a student (within a mixed race classroom) reading Huck Finn; Frederick-Douglass Knowles II injected a refreshing mixture of intellect, energy and thought provoking commentary throughout the discussion; and as a retired history teacher and director of educational programs at the Mark Twain House & Museum, Craig Hotchkiss' awareness of the struggles teachers face when attempting to bring unconventional teaching methodologies into their classrooms was enlightening.

The panelists (l to r) Craig Hotchkiss, Dr. Kerry Driscoll, Frederick-Douglass Knowles II, Timothy C. Floyd, Jr., Thomas Smith (Moderator)

The program was preluded with a showing of the recent "60 Minutes" segment on Gribben's edition of Huckleberry Finn in a room a adjacent to the auditorium.

Moderator Thomas Smith's initial questions were formulated to establish background on the novel, Twain's intentions and a discussion on the usage of the 'N' word in everyday culture, which proved to be very successful.

The highlight was Mr. Knowles' explanation of the word's usage and acceptance in Hip-Hop culture. Knowles pointed to the billion dollar "Gangsta Rap" industry that has thrived and continues to thrive via the 'N' word since the late 80's, both validating and explaining its acceptance within that context very well; I believe Knowles' statements hit the nail squarely on the head. West Coast rap, fueled with hard-hitting, often violent lyrics describing life in the "hood" was an immediate hit with not only black culture but white culture as well and it is very plausible that the historical context of the word (within this realm) has been ignored in exchange for the riches generated in employing it.

As the program progressed, the panel discussion opened up to those in attendance and as a direct result very important lessons relating to the role "context" and "perception" play in regard to this subject en filtered the conversation. Via multiple first hand accounts it became abundantly clear that how the 'N' Word is used and by whom it is used by is the true issue with the 'N' Word.

Many teachers in attendance openly shared stories of the negativity they face when attempting to bring Adventures of Huckleberry Finn into their classroom. In the discussions that followed it was determined that there is a need to address the 'N' Word and teach students the historical context of the word prior to classroom discussions about the book's content. So, by:
1. examining the word, its history and its usage 2. explaining why it is used in Huck Finn and 3. why it is essential to the novel, teachers can lessen the negative feelings and emotions associated with the word. However, it was pointed out that some teachers will inevitability fail regardless of their efforts.

The lesson/conclusion that I took away from this discussion was that the 'N' Word is toxic. Both Frederick-Douglass Knowles II and Timothy C. Floyd, Jr. provided valid first hand accounts of the awkward anger they felt as African-Americans within classrooms reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn out loud and dealing with the fact that they were the only African-Americans in the room (i.e all eyes on them). That viewpoint cannot be ignored. That viewpoint is likely why Alan Gribben's edited or "southern" version of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is filling bookshelves and being welcomed by school systems of the South.

The issue I have with Gribben's version is that Twain was not using the "N-word" because he was racist, he was using it to make a point. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is autobiographical. Twain's own parents had slaves and his relationship with the slaves and their children was very influential in his life & writings. His childhood experiences would clearly leave a legacy of guilt that he would later lash out at in his speeches and literary works in an attempt to lessen his guilt.

Twain's personal history paralleled Huckleberry Finn's and given the fact that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn took Twain 8 years to write, he used the words he used for a reason. To give that statement some weight, I'll add that between manuscript 1 and 2, he made more than 1,700 revisions. 88 percent of these revisions being: word changes, spelling, punctuation and adding emphasis. Removing or altering the words Twain himself wrote is misguided, the fact that a Twain scholar is the one doing it is down right vexing but it is what it is.

Background on Twain's life and experiences is essential to the reading of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Without that background, without providing students with a comprehensive understanding of why "nigger" is used 200+ times in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn makes Adventures of Huckleberry Finn pointless.

Mark Twain on Huckleberry Finn:

"A book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat."
- Notebook #35 (reprinted in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Univ. of California Press, 2003)

Mark Twain on Slavery:

"In those old slave-holding days the whole community was agreed as to one thing--the awful sacredness of slave property. To help steal a horse or a cow was a low crime, but to help a hunted slave, or feed him or shelter him, or hide him, or comfort him, in his troubles, his terrors, his despair, or hesitate to promptly to betray him to the slave-catcher when opportunity offered was a much baser crime, & carried with it a stain, a moral smirch which nothing could wipe away.

That this sentiment should exist among slave-owners is comprehensible--there were good commercial reasons for it--but that it should exist & did exist among the paupers, the loafers the tag-rag & bobtail of the community, & in a passionate & uncompromising form, is not in our remote day realizable. It seemed natural enough to me then; natural enough that Huck & his father the worthless loafer should feel it & approve it, though it seems now absurd. It shows that that strange thing, the conscience--the unerring monitor--can be trained to approve any wild thing you want it to approve if you begin its education early & stick to it."

- Notebook #35 (reprinted in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Univ. of California Press, 2003)

If students don't understand Adventures of Huckleberry Finn's meaning and teachers don't have the time or interest to help them understand it, go in a new direction and teach Mark Twain's life in our school systems instead... kids will not only get it, they will want more of it.

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