Tuesday, January 7, 2014

HUCK FINN, THE “N” WORD, AND ME



Wow.  During the past three weeks or so, I’ve been following an extremely passionate and thoughtful debate on the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Discussion Forum.  English teachers and their students are currently discussing Mark Twain’s famous classic, Huckleberry Finn, a book that's included on required reading lists for schools all over tarnation. And it seems that every single teacher has a different way of dealing (or not dealing) with the ever-present “N” word in Huck’s tale. 


What do the teachers have to say?  You name it:

~So should the book be banned? 
~How dare anyone even think the book should be banned!! 
~Should the “N”word be repeated aloud in class? 
~Let’s put a less offensive word in its place!
~No way….that’s verboten
~How do I keep from offending my black students?
~We’re a bunch of white men, so maybe we’re unfit to discuss such things.  
~Can the word make for a teachable moment?
~Maybe there’s another equally good book that could replace Huckleberry Finn and still get Mark Twain’s points across without using politically incorrect language.
~Why would you want to do that?  
~Mark Twain just uses the "N" word to satirize the racists' immoral behavior. 
~Should we simply have kids read certain “safe” passages and ignore the rest?
~Why can’t they take a gander at the whole tamale?
~Can we as adult teachers even use the word “nigger” with each other in this forum?
~Yes, of course! 
~NO, most certainly not!


I just looked at Mark Twain’s book as I was typing this blog, and the word is all over the place; on the first page of Chapter XLII alone, it appears 14 times.  But what does all this have to do with yours truly?

Right now, a lot. I’m writing a nonfiction picture book about the Civil War for kids ages 10 and up, and to me, many of the most riveting, memorable, candid, and revealing quotes I have ever seen anywhere come from slave narratives compiled verbatim after these people were freed. 
  
If anyone wants to understand what life was really like for black Americans before and during the Civil War, they should see these unfiltered stories as experienced by the genuine human beings themselves. I’ve read slave narratives by the hundreds by now, and for that reason, I’m including a few of the strongest paragraphs in my (not yet finished) manuscript.  Or at least, that’s my full intent.  This is nonfiction, so the plan is to uncover the truth, not to Bowdlerize history.
  

The problem is that slave narratives are liberally peppered with the ubiquitous “N” word. It was an integral part of the language back then and appears on almost every page.  Of course I’m no Mark Twain—tis to laugh— but I’m already getting the same kind of push-back Huck Finn is getting for including the word (in its proper context).  You can find the warnings I’ve gotten in the list above, and I’m getting five more: 
 
1)  Your book will be banned if you use that word because you ain’t Mark Twain.
2)  Yup, Mark Twain was white like you, but he’s a famous dead guy and can get away with things you can't.
3) Have fun trying to get the word nigger past your publisher.
4) Be practical. If you include the word you won’t sell a single copy. 
5)  Look out for the hate mail. 


People, get in line.  I’ve gotten push-back for writing non-Bowdlerized history plenty of times already, so why stop now?  (Even so, I’d like to know what you think…..)

5 comments:

Steve Sheinkin said...

This n-word issue came up with my new book, The Port Chicago 50, a World War II civil rights story. There were a couple of quotes with the word that I felt simply had to be included, and I went with them. No objection from publisher, but we'll see what people say...

Vicki Cobb said...

Great question, Roz. Are you thinking about including and author's note in the back matter or even up front about your use of the word? I think that kids may want to discuss this whole thing. It fits into current bullying issues.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thanks Steve. I just went to Amazon and Looked Inside the (your) Book at THE PORT CHICAGO 50,and I thought your use of the word was 100% appropriate and necessary. Of course yours is a YA book and mine is a very wordy picture book with a younger audience, but as you said, let's see what happens. And thanks, Vicki. Methinks I won't highlight the word in the author's note, partly for lack of room due to the huge volume of back matter. But maybe the word will promote those kinds of discussions on its own.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan Kuklin said...

A very important question, Roz. I'd love to see this topic discussed at ALA, NCTE, or a PEN Children's Committee panel. My view is to be absolutely true to a primary source. We need to talk about this more.