Another take on the Twain debate

A friend brought to my attention this commentary by Boyce Watkins for CNN International. It adds another important voice to our ongoing debate on taking the “N” word out of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” I won’t print the whole commentary here, but I found the second half particularly compelling:

Long before I became a scholar, I was a black teenage boy. At that time, I would never have enjoyed hearing my English teacher repeat the n-word 219 times out loud in front of a class full of white students. I also would have wondered why African-Americans are the only ethnic group forced to read “classic” literature that uses such derogatory language toward us in a disturbingly repetitive way.

I would have found such a presentation to be only a hurtful and highly inefficient way for me to understand slavery, and I probably would have been teased.

Yes, our nation needs an honest conversation on race. That conversation shouldn’t start and end with “Huckleberry Finn.” In fact, the urgency with which some defend the use of this book as a tool for teaching racial history reflects our desperate and unfulfilled need to address the atrocities of slavery.

Although the brilliance of the Mark Twain novel must be acknowledged, students can and should be engaged in constructive ways to learn what happened to their ancestors without being subjected to racial slurs in the process. Similar to the way it was inappropriate last year for a teacher in North Carolina to force students to re-enact slavery in a cotton field, I don’t need to hear the n-word 219 times to know that it is hurtful.

After being a black teen, I became a parent, so I must make this final point:

While we may be seeking to support fundamental American freedoms by ensuring that the Mark Twain book is available in its rawest form, it is ultimately incorrect for us to simultaneously steal the freedom of parents to decide that the language of the book is not appropriate for their children.

One freedom deserves another, so the freedom of the artist to express himself/herself in an offensive way should be supplemented by our right to reject that form of expression within the confines of a public school. By creating an alternative version of this brilliant text, Gribben has opened the door for millions of children to experience the beauty of this book without the much-celebrated racial degradation. Freedom ultimately means having options.

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