Monday, January 19, 2009

Selling Huck and Jim Down The River

According to an article in today’s Los Angeles Times, John Foley, a 48 year old teacher from Ridgefield, Washington, wants to remove Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn from the high school curriculum because of the word nigger. He would also like to drop To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men for the same reason.

“…[W]ith an African-American about to be inaugurated as president,” reporter Kim Murphy writes, “Foley wonders whether ‘Huck Finn’ ought to be sent back down the river. Why not replace it with a more modern, less discomfiting novel documenting the epic journey of discovery?” Maybe because the “epic journey of discovery” that Huck and Jim undertake includes the realization that people can be incredibly evil to each other, as best personified when someone hurls the word nigger at a black person.

Literature and art are not supposed to make us feel comfortable. In fact, books can and should disturb us, inspire us to change, make us rethink our lives.

Jim is the most moral, caring, loving, conscientious character in the novel. The scene where he finds Huck after thinking him lost overboard is one of the most moving in the book. Huck feels so guilty because Jim cares about him, and he was trying to trick him.

Tom Robinson is an innocent victim of racism. Atticus Finch proves he did not commit the rape of Mayella Ewell, yet the all-white jury still finds him guilty. Bob Ewell, as well as several members of the community, call Atticus a “nigger-lover” for doing his job—defending a man accused of a crime. Worse, they call him this epithet not just to his face, but also to his children, Scout and Jem.

What do my students get from these novels? They see the injustice. They feel what Tom Robinson feels, what Jim experiences, maybe not in totality, for how can a non-black person understand fully the fires of racism without being black? But the books give us another view and that is what good literature should do: expand one’s understanding of the world and its people. Students are outraged at the end of To Kill A Mockingbird. The conclusion makes them angry; it disturbs them, and that is how it should be.

“Foley said he doesn’t want to ban the books,” Murphy writes. “He just thinks they shouldn’t be the backbone of the American literature curriculum in 2009…” Just because we have elected an African-American to the office of president does not mean we are done with racism in this country. And is injustice and discrimination only about race? My state will not allow two people of the same sex to make a commitment to one another. Sexism, racism, and discrimination are all still an unhealthy part of American culture.

In addition, to remove these books from the high school curriculum because the black male characters are “ignorant, inarticulate and uneducated,” is incredibly stupid in its own right.

Barack Obama is part of a generation that broke through the barriers of race in the university and in public life. He is articulate and highly intelligent because of the struggles of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and many others, both black and white, to eradicate racism and segregation from society, and give people of color equal opportunities. Jim and Tom Robinson are not so fortunate to live in this time.

And are these two characters truly ignorant?

Jim demonstrates his thoughtful logic and intelligence when he analyzes the wisdom of King Solomon and the dispute between the two women over the infant. Tom Robinson displays an acute understanding of the plight of others. It is what gets him in trouble in the courtroom when he says he feels sorry for Mayella Ewell. Let’s not confuse undereducated with uneducated. These two characters have much to teach us and future generations, and although their stories are not the only ones to teach values, they should always be included on the reading options for literature courses in high school.

As for Mr. Foley, he displays his own brand of ignorance. “You have to remember, it’s a hard to sell kids these days on books,” he says in the article. “I write young adult novels, and sometimes I wonder, why bother? You’re writing for three girls who like to read.”

Don’t bother, Mr. Foley. The world does not need another writer, and those three girls and a host of other kids have plenty to read without “selling” them your ideas on what constitutes good literature. As a teacher, you should have more respect for the intellect of your students.


  1. Black America and the N-word:

  2. That last quote almost makes me sad. I'm so sorry that people who think that way can be "role models" in a country that needs more INTELLECTUALLY progressive mentors.
    Fortunately, I've had my own!
    Thanks Mr. Martin! Keep writing, please. :)

    - Garine


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